Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Visable God

"Money is an abominable idol. It is everywhere. The only things that matter are invisible. Why are we here? What are life and death?"
- Robert Bresson, in conversation with Michel Ciment

"(I saw) L’ARGENT, which was beyond awful. A cynical old man’s movie with every stylistic trope that would provide perfect evidence to back the case of all those who might claim to detest 'Art Movies.' Especially French ones."
- [NAME REDACTED], in an email to me

As previously documented, Robert Bresson is -- if I must choose only one -- my favorite director. Mainly, I think he's the one who has the most to teach anyone who wants to use moving images to tell stories. Over the course of his career, he whittled filmmaking down to its most basic (and deceptively simple) elements. While I think A MAN ESCAPED is both the most representative and accessible of Bresson's films and techniques, Bresson's swansong -- 1983's L'ARGENT -- may just be the apotheosis of his style. In fact, as my friend argued above, a case can be made for L'ARGENT being close to a Bressonian self-parody. While a plausible case for this can be mounted, I heartily disagree.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Making Out With Pan

There's this moment in Michelangelo Antonioni's LA NOTTE (recently out on Bluray) where a woman attending a lavish, la dolce vita fete gets carried away in the middle of a downpour and starts making out with a statue of Pan. [You're going to have to take my word for it (or, better yet, see the film; it's a good one) because I lack the technical sophistication to pull a frame from a Bluray.] I bring it up because it's a nice little moment. An obvious one, perhaps -- the wealthy debaucheress paying tribute to the god of wild abandon -- but still a hint at what Antonioni's up to in the film.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Barnes and Noble Criterion Sale Ultimate Decision Maker!

As with yesterday's little exercise, I'm giving you a list of films to buy in the sale during the Criterion 50% off promotion they're running. Sure, you could stream them on Hulu or get them from the library. But - as I continue to discover - the best thing about owning a DVD or a book is that you don't actually have to watch or read the thing you own. Ownership implies consumption! Buy these, put them on your shelves, impress your guests, horde them until you shirk this mortal coil, and enjoy the sleep of the just!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Barnes & Noble 50% Off Criterion/Eclipse-mas Holiday Gift Guide-a-thon Part One!

Since we've already established that I'm essentially a shill for the Criterion Collection, I figured I'd throw together a couple quick lists of recommendations for the ongoing 50% off Barnes & Noble sale. I tend to use these things to pick up pricey boxed sets, so I'm going to lead off with my top five top picks from Criterion's recent Eclipse line releases (tomorrow I'll highlight five of my favorite recent Blus from the mainline label).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


I tend to hate reviews that arbitrarily pit films against each other, setting one up as a cudgel to thrash the other with. It's the obnoxious conceit that drives Armond White's annual "better-than" lists, the idea that something can only be considered good while in relief against something dismal.

That said, I've been trying to figure out why I liked Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA so much more than Lena Dunham's TINY FURNITURE, both Criterion releases (the former having been released yesterday in a Blu/DVD dual format package).

Both films have a superficially identical recipe: a twenty-something white woman experiencing post-college paralysis, adrift in Manhattan (and, of course, Brooklyn; the nerve center for this sort of thing), sponging off of others while vaguely aiming for an unambitious career in the arts, surrounded by a coterie of privileged, like-minded, polyamorous friends and -- ultimately -- just (heavy sigh) soooo unsure of what to do with themselves.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Glittering Eyes

I was feeling free. I thought all my debts were settled. And then I received another summons from the redoubtable Bill Ryan (right). I had no choice but to carry out his diabolical orders and write up Isak Dinesen's "The Monkey", selected from her SEVEN GOTHIC TALES (out in a handsome new Folio Society edition which is number one with a bullet on my Christmas list... - hint - hint -). My ruminations are over at The Kind of Face You Hate and (again) a part of the horror fiction series Bill runs every year.

While you're over there, also check out Roderick Heath on M.R. James and Bill hisself on Maurice Level. Great stuff, as per usual, and (again) I'm happy to be a contributor.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hugger-Mugger Propinquity

Well... it's been quiet around here. A little TOO quiet. Eerily quiet, even. I...


Oh. WHEW. It's just Bill Ryan, ladies and gentlemen! My! Did his bulged eyes and exaggeratedly aquiline nose give me a fright!

During October every year, Bill runs 31 days of horror fiction-related posts. Over the years, this has become one of the few holiday traditions I look forward to. Bill's posts have led to me discovering a new writer (like William Scott Home) or finally getting around to an old one (like Algernon Blackwood, whose WILLOWS just might be my favorite piece of horror fiction). Bill's posts are funny and refreshingly free of blinkered fan boy reverence (check out his take on HOUSE OF LEAVES) but -- more importantly -- Bill has a deep love of the genre that's evident throughout his writing. If Bill chastens and chides today's horrorsmiths, it's only because he wants them to do better, dammit. 

Anyway, I'm not just writing this to praise Bill's annual efforts (incidentally: he's pretty good the other eleven months out of the year, too). For this year's project, Bill called on a veritable ghoul's gallery of ghasts to contribute pieces. I happened to sneak my way in to a roster that (thusfar) includes Andrew Leon Hudson, Jose Cruz, Dennis Cozzalio, Danny Bowes, Andrew Bemis, Arion Berger, and Bryce Wilson.

My piece -- on Charles Williams' DESCENT INTO HELL -- runs today. Enjoy (if you dare!)...

[ps This is where I would normally promise more content in the days to come. I won't since that always seems to turn out empty. "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring" and all that.]

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Everything can be done, in principle.

As long as I'm talking about Westerns, here's a piece that was supposed to go up last fall but never did.

In 1978, MGM/UA gambled about $44 million (around $150 million in today’s dollars) on Michael Cimino’s Western HEAVEN'S GATE. The director was running hot off of the critical and commercial success of his Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER and seemed like yet another auteur in the Scorsese/Coppola mold of Hollywood young turks poised to continue the paradigm shift of '70s American filmmaking.

Unless you’re a cinematic dilettante, you know how this story ends. Far more famous than the film itself is HEAVEN'S GATE’s troubled saga of floppery. The film’s name became shorthand for a sort of filmic Waterloo, a bloated folly that was too big not to fail. HEAVEN'S GATE: The Film has played second fiddle to Heaven's Gate: The Symbol of (Fill In Your Thesis Title).

Last fall, Criterion released a deluxe Blu of Cimino's definitive final cut, a grand occasion for those of us who'd never seen any version of the film. Their Cimino-supervised restoration has beautifully rendered his original vision and (hopefully) will steer attention back to the film itself, rather than the hash made of it by trade magazine pundits and industry wonks. I, for one, went into the film fully expecting to love all 216 minutes of it - I have a soft spot for long films, westerns, and crazy pet projects.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bully For You, Chilly For Me

Hey everybody. Over at GreenCine, I have a write-up of Delmar Daves' JUBAL and 3:10 TO YUMA, which came out in May from the Criterion Collection. However, I'm taking a break from my Criterion reviews to focus on another unhealthy obsession: making lists of movies. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

SHOAH Part 3 - "Bureaucrats became inventors."

By the end of 1940, if you were a Jew living in Warsaw, you were forced to relocate to the well-guarded ghetto in the center of the city. You were among 400,000 fellow Jews -- some 30% of the population of Warsaw, occupying less than 3% of its space.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

SHOAH Part 2 - "A production line of death"

"One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic."
- Joseph Stalin

Six hours in and SHOAH is starting to congeal into several main thoughts/ideas.

The biggest revelation for me during this round occurred at the film's four-hour mark. Lanzmann casually chats with residents of Grabow, Poland -- the village closest to the Chelmno extermination camp (400,000 dead, two survivors). Thirty-odd years after the Shoah, there's no real love lost between this particular group of Poles and the Jews. Lanzmann lightly cajoles the still-active strain of antisemitism out of the villagers. Of course none of them wanted to see them die or be gassed or anything, BUT...

The Jewish women were much more beautiful than the Polish women. Why? Because they didn't have to work. They were rich. "Because the capital was in their hand."

The Jews were dishonest. "They should have gone to Israel on their own."

One townsperson recounts a "rabbi's story" about how the death of the Jews in the Shoah "expiated the blood of Christ" and that the whole thing was "God's will."

After hours of hearing about men, women, and children reduced to crumbling, flattened, ragdoll-like corpses -- whether in the cattle cars, the gas chambers, the death pits, etc. -- we start hinting at the "why" just a little bit. And the "why" is still there. We've seen the effect, now for the cause.

Lanzmann does what he said he would not and flat out asks the villagers, "Why the Jews?" After a pause, one of them blurts out: "Because they were the richest."

Fascinating. I'd never heard it quite broken down in terms of class envy before. Not sure why that never occurred to me. Any study of Hitler quickly reveals that he was chock-full of craven covetousness, brimming with a juvenile, one-dimensional envy of anyone he thought had something that he deserved. This particular psychoses trickled into his fiery rhetoric and, well, tens of millions of dead later, etc.

And its when this particular revelation hit that my thesis materialized, my main takeaway (so far) from SHOAH:

There is NO REASON that this won't happen again. Not necessarily to the Jews, though that's always a possibility. Every anger-fueled conspiracy theory message board/political argument is just a click or two away from blaming the Rothschilds for the world's woes and it's not even a full click from there to the jewry.

But it doesn't even have to be the Jews next time. There is nothing in history to tell us mankind is trending toward a less destructive, less avaricious way of living.

Lanzmann recognizes, therefore, the moral imperative of making SHOAH. During an interview, a barber (who was forced to cut women and children's hair minutes before they were reduced to ashes) breaks down and refuses to finish recounting an anecdote. He won't go on. He can't.

But Lanzmann gently urges him on: "We have to do it. You know it."

"You want History," one of the former SS guards asks Lanzmann. "I'm giving you History."  The Nazis knew their history. The Final Solution piggybacked on planned exterminations like the Armenian genocide and the Russian pogroms. They knew that the deep vein of thousands of years of antisemitism -- institutionalized by governing bodies both secular and religious -- could continue to be tapped and exploited.

Now it's time for the rest of us to get caught up on our history.

Tomorrow, I'll wrap this up...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

SHOAH Part 1 - An Everlasting Memorial

The image above is probably the most famous from Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 SHOAH. Having never seen the film (until recently), the image has been my brain’s shorthand for it; mention SHOAH and the impish little Eastern European man leaning out of the train with the simple sign for “Treblinka” behind him pops up in my head.

He’s one of the many survivors interviewed for SHOAH, but not a survivor of the arm-tattooed variety, as I'd assumed. His name is Henrik Gawkowski. He was responsible for driving the trains packed with thousands of "deported" Jews back and forth between the tiny Polish village of Małkinia Górna and the Treblinka extermination camp. It was a short trip -- about six miles -- and Gawkowski made it countless times during his tenure as a train operator. Nearly one million Jews met their death at Treblinka, so the trains -- for that matter, all of the machinery of the Final Solution -- had to work overtime.

Friday, June 14, 2013

“I hate movies.”

Being part the fourth of my wrasslin’ with the work of Jean-Luc Godard. The first two parts – 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER and BREATHLESS – went undocumented. The last bout between Godard and I – when I watched 1967’s WEEKEND – occurred last fall. (I’ve also seen both ALPHAVILLE and CONTEMPT but both were so long ago that my opinion on these has been misplaced.) I know everyone finds my struggles with a highly regarded auteur fascinating, so I’m here to bravely confront BAND OF OUTSIDERS.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Q Word

"Travis seems confused. He is so much part of his own world, he fails to comprehend another's world."
- Paul Schrader, TAXI DRIVER

Do you remember that scene in TAXI DRIVER where Travis Bickle finally lands a date with the woman of his sick fantasies and decides that taking her to a Swedish porno film in Times Square is just the ticket to win her over? When Betsy balks, all Travis can do is scratch his head in befuddlement. "These are the kind that couples go to," he protests. "Honest. I've seen them."

That was an unsettling little scene, right? Well what if Travis Bickle were painted by Schrader/Scorsese/DeNiro as just a loveable, misunderstood galoot? And what if Betsy just rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and said "here we go again!" or something and accompanied Bickle into the theater?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

I Have A Way

"Bresson is a rarity among filmmakers: he apparently knows exactly what he does and why he does it... any study of Bresson must take into account his astute self-criticism."
 - Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style In Film

"A MAN ESCAPED would seem of all Bresson's films the most plot-oriented; it is about a prison break. But the title dispenses with any possibility of suspense - UN CONDAMNE A MORT S'EST ECHAPPE (a man condemned to death has escaped)."
- Paul Schrader, ibid. 

“‘Fear Eats the Soul’... there’s more truth in that title than most whole films.” 

* * *

Last year, I participated in The Skuriels, a joint effort between the Skandies and Muriels to come up with the twenty greatest films ever made (released in conjunction with Sight and Sound's decennial list). When considering my own ballot, my "short list" of around 150 films was weighed heavily toward certain directors: Scorsese, Lynch, Hitchcock, Welles, Tourneur, Dreyer, etc. etc. Of all the repeat filmmakers, Robert Bresson probably had the most impressive track record; six of the eight films of his I'd seen were contenders for my top ten.