This column offers a method of film criticism that dwells entirely (almost entirely) on the film itself. It is not interested in ideological approaches to film or contextualization in regards to an auteur theory that privileges the authorial perspective of a director. It comments on recent DVD releases and attempts to offer something in return but only a something which has been taken from the film and did not originate in the writer. The column accepts that this approach breaches much of modern aesthetic theory and tries not to care.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

DVD Column Six

This one took a long time because of the inclusion of three television series making for approximately forty-five extra hours of viewing. As for the films not recommended, I am still honing my approach. I am thinking that negative comments about films may still be celebratory. I also suspect I am wrong.

Best Bet:

The Pool (Smith, 2007) Kino Lorber

My enthusiasm for this film may be inflated due to its exhibiting everything I like about movies: low key characters played by people I have never seen before thus making them seem like they are exactly who they appear to be; long shots of these characters performing their jobs; avoidance of clich├ęs – the introduction of the main female character does not lead to romance as it likely wouldn’t in their lives; tensions that seem both mundane and serious like the ones in my life; and a conclusion that shocks but also seems not only appropriate but beautiful. I concede that these virtues are not shared by everyone and they are not central to what passes for great film in this day and age (not one of the Oscar nominees satisfied one of these criteria). But if you can find this film and watch it by yourself with a patience that is not often requested by modern cinema I feel confident that it will have a stirring impact on you.
Venkatesh works in a one star hotel neighbored by a wealthy home with a luxurious pool. His aspiration in life is to swim in this pool not as an intruder but as someone who is welcome and belongs. Through his own persistence he wins gardening work from the house owner and by the time his dream becomes possible it is no longer his dream. What is interesting is that he no longer dreams about anything much at all, his pursuit has become a life, he works, he has friends and life is in its living. The wealthy home-owner becomes fond of Venkatesh and seeks to improve his future without perhaps recognizing that the motion has already been completed although the gesture still proves useful.
In a telling scene the wealthy daughter is reading literature designed as she puts it “to mess up your head.” She asks Venkatesh if he wants his head messed with. Going against teenage type, Venkatesh answers as only a person whose life is built on actual daily living could: he says no. However Venkatesh also tells numerous stories of his own past that certainly messed with my head, ranging from being possessed from six months to fights with gangs and problems with wild animals. I did not know if he was to be believed or whether he was the sort who found his validation in his own imagination. By film’s end all the stories and these questions drift away, replaced by a simple evocation of a moral young man whose depths resist temptation.  

Also recommended:


The Ballad of Narayama [Blu-ray] (Kinoshita, 1958) Criterion

The traditional presentation of the Japanese folk ballad with its grating presentation, to Western ears, of notes both sung and plucked is off-putting and does run the risk of imposing itself on the ways that the delicately painted backdrops and characters are perceived. The whole thing begins with the smell of the grandiosely false, characters fitting into the simplicity of a narrative that could be expressed in song form. But it does not stay there and the basic story of an elderly woman’s inclination to go to her winter death on the barren mountain of Narayama is disturbing especially to those of us who do not know how, and are not inclined to learn, to sing this song of yesterday. The film is lush, the colours from a painter’s vision and it is these affectations that makes the brutality, mainly symbolized by a shocking smashing of pristine teeth, all the more shocking. It is this sense of shock that then translates into an apprehension of the future of our faithful or deluded matriarch preparing for her own death. Family is skewed in all directions, the elderly in their witness and acceptance of inevitable weakening encourage anticipation of that weakness, and the young knowing the traditions and rituals of religious euthanasia have no sense of obligation, concern or care. The majority result is the rewarding of self-indulgence in the young, the minority view being a sense of dread and guilt. The basic theme, casually and comfortably presented, is the relation between eschatological confidence and the social order of affection and responsibility. The implication of the film is that the whole structure is dubious and dark but that, I concede, may have to do with my disbelief in the arrival of the Gods on Mount Narayama. In any case, the film while suggesting that the presence of the transcendent into the temporal mucks up the temporal does not convey that the rejection of this intrusion would be in itself a remedy. How would you feel about your parents if you had been raised in a belief that when they entered the age of being a potential burden or drain of resources from the more youthful that they were to be carried on your back, in one last gesture of bearing, to the wilderness to meet their God? Would your acceptance of the religious base of the tradition be built on your young appetite for more? Are you anticipating an inheritance?


Borgen Series 1 and 2 (Price, 2011-2) Arrow

Political dramas seem to be making a splash, despite the cancelling of the entertaining Starz show Boss. The problem, if this is a problem, of such shows is that in order to be entertaining either the optimism or evil of the politicians involved becomes unrealistic and thus irrelevant as social commentary. I prefer the accounts of evil to ones of optimism not because I have a cynicism that I love to have nurtured but because false optimism is the worst sort of deluding lie (if only in the realm of the political). Borgen, in light of my concerns, is clearly and obviously the best political drama ever made. Yes, it is set in Denmark and the political system being considered is moderately or mildly foreign to both the Canadian and, especially, the American system but this is not the main point. The main point, as it uncomfortably must be, is the weight of power on persons who believe themselves immune to its corrosive properties. Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the Moderate party, as a result of refreshingly honest comments at an election debate, and the hubristic collapse of the front-runner, finds herself as prime minister of Denmark. From the granting of power the episodes follow dealing with issues that in of themselves would strike most viewers as intrinsically dull but the momentum of the show deals with the ways that power slides into the crevices of one’s being without being noticed. Nyborg is a good woman with popular reformist ideas and ideals. As the show progresses she continues to measure her status in relation not to the actualities of these principles but as to whether she still echoes the image of a woman of principle. Do I appear to the people as a truthful woman, even if I do not or cannot act for actual truth? She balances herself with a spin doctor who denies the value of civic principle in order to both benefit from his expertise and to feel superior to his moral vulgarity. The media is bracingly presented as either manipulated and beholden, or manipulating and tabloidish. The characters are endlessly intriguing but their level of fascination is so connected to how they serve the intrigues of a political system that the nature of what we appreciate in human beings is also drawn into question. Articulate intelligence trumps uninformed kindness on the show as in your society. The former is praised in relation to how supports and evaluates (same thing) the system that has all scrambling. Borgen more than any other show identifies our systemic troubles and our troubles having to do with the systems we live under, systems that imagine themselves as connected to images of care and affection for those less privileged or victimized by the very constructs we use to define success. Nyborg and her growing need to hold on to power runs in tandem with her growing belief that she is not in need of power but that power is in need of her. How you feel about her movement, and the slow arcing movements of everyone else, will be defined by where you see yourself on that same arc. Accused or encouraged, the show implicates all of us in the ways we think we need to be presented and represented. Borgen, like us, is smart and less than kind in its observations.

House of Cards Trilogy BBC Warner

House of Cards (Fincher, 2013) Netflix

The original British drama and the recent American remake invite and resist comparison. They invite it because they are built on the same premise; they resist it because they are radically different. The key point of comparison, the main character played by Ian Richardson for the British and Kevin Spacy for the Americans, is also a point of departure. Richardson communicates the vicious gravitas of the English statesman, Spacey, a South Carolina congressman adds a dash of All the King’s Men sleaze and grit to the BBC’s intonations of Richard III. The premise of both shows is the machinations of political power and the diabolical grip that those it possesses demand of it. Richardson is only charming when he is being vile, a Thatcherite conservative principled to be out of touch with the needs of a modern society. Spacey is a Southern democrat with no principles at all except admiration and respect for the political game. The one with principles is by far the more devious and disturbing of the two and in fact by the end of season one of the American version there was little about Spacey’s character that I found terminally objectionable. In fact I think I like him or at least genuinely find him interesting – what other response is possible to a man who blows out all the prayer candles at a Catholic church? One does not dare to think the same of his British counterpart. Richardson’s Urquhart when not in control of his manipulative scheming is a wimp; without power he is a nobody. One might be tempted to consider that the merit of either show, the typically theatrical BBC production and “the this is how it is” of the American, is in how well it conveys the actualities of political life. In this regard I would suggest that both shows fail and the notion that such central figures could actually exist as singular entities strikes me as preposterous. What is unbelievable is not the ruthless coldness of the desire for power but the startling intelligence and luck, that seems to serve intelligent planning that both men enjoy. Both men hatch such elaborate and brilliant plots of revenge the whole rest of their world only has the task of beings chips that must inevitably fall into place. Luckily, believability is not the central merit of either show. What recommends them is their unswerving desire to explore a system that gives birth and nurtures the worst of human traits and then charms us with their exploits. I have wavered on which of the two I think is superior but have decided it is a false question. First of all one is an apple and the other an orange. One is contextually connected to our own time, the other is of a time past and this distant only defends or hides whatever inadequacies the show may have in terms of its social understandings of the political class. But the main reason not to choose is that you should and can watch both without fear of problematic redundancies.

Laura [Blu-ray] (Preminger, 1944) 20th Century Fox

A nice noir about the shotgun to the face murder of a woman that is mostly fascinating in its portrayal of all its male characters as controlling and smug swine. Even the title character of Laura is barely tolerable, recommended only by her loveliness, a fact that you can be sure she is well aware of. Nothing gets in the way of the movement of the entertaining plot, the camera work is inviting, zooming in and away with a proper sense of rhythm, setting in darkness the faces that you did not come to see. The film invites questions of moral doubt about the sanctity of ambition and success and how it can only lead to possessiveness and abuse of those who share it.

Wild River [Blu-ray] (Kazan, 1960) 20th Century Fox

Montgomery Clift is a hero of mine. His eyes are always workings and his mannerisms and gestures appear to be identical to ones he might make even after the director shouts. He is a classic reacting actor and the beauty of such an approach is that you always feel that he is listening to the others around him and that what he others, be it a words or a gesture of the eyes (a 50/50 mix) are in response to what he has been given. In Wild River Clift plays a government employee set to remove an elderly woman from the path of a river damning project that has been killing citizens with every spring flood. She does not want to go and it is his task to convince her. He believes in the necessity of progress, of bringing electricity to homes that do not have it. She likes the wildness of river and what it correspondingly says about life. He understands her point of view more than she does his and while I certainly find her approach attractive, the film and I know that he has some right on his side. What fascinates is the conflict between Clift’s representation of the white male government against the matriarchy of Tennessee culture. But the film is clear that matriarchal appreciation for wildness is culturally over and that the grand-daughter really just wants to connect with the man. Add to this a seemingly honest depiction of the horrors of race relations in early 1930s and the wonders of a film where every actor is enjoyable to watch and you have a film that is varied, deep, and honest about a time when political tensions were about human beings in danger and not the flow of currency.

Also seen (in order of appreciation):

Yelling to the Sky [Blu-ray] (Mahoney, 2011) MPI Home Video

There is nothing really wrong with this film except that it is strives to be so in your face with its realism about abused teenagers that it is relentlessly dreary. It may be a mistake to define all of your central characters as victims because while we can presume something is obviously being destroyed in them it is too vague. In order to connect and perhaps, sadly, to care we need to have a sense of what is at stake beyond the broad strokes of the collapse of the human form. It is possible that there would be a time, either past or future, where this film would intrigue me deeply. For now I am content to lose it in the cracks.

Peter Pan [Blu-ray] Walt Disney Home Entertainment

It looks great and the animation is charming, I am especially delighted by the swaying of Wendy’s dress. As a telling of the Peter Pan story it is limp and lacking. I am not prone to compare films with their literary sources but the original text is so edgy and transgressive, celebratory and mistrustful of children, that it seems a profound shame to dilute it as folksy entertainment.

Flight [Blu-ray] (Zemeckis, 2012) Paramount

The first half hour is exciting and cumulates in a wondrous and ridiculous action sequence. The rest is a made for television movie about recovery, relapse, guilt and redemption. After extensive character development the female lead is subsumed into Denzel Washington’s wake and we never see her again. This is the case for all the details of the film; they are there to be swallowed by the star.

Deadfall [Blu-ray] (Ruzowitsky, 2012) Magnolia

The film has much promise in an interesting central villain. It is damaged by have boring heroes and a conclusion that denies the promise of any of the many build-ups.

21 Days: The Heineken Kidnapping [Blu-ray] (Treurniet, 2011) RB UK Spirit Entertainment

I suspect that the crew who made this film watched Assayas Carlos with an eye on how to capture period details. What they did not do is recognize that in comparison their film is not about anything or anybody.

Cabaret [Blu-ray] (Fosse, 1972) Warner

The first two musical numbers are wonderful, and then there is nothing like it for ninety minutes. The connection between decadence and pre-Nazi Germany fascism is too loosely made, a prop instead of a context.

Anna Karenina [Blu-ray] (Wright, 2012) Universal Studios

Unlike many of my friends I like stylistic films with lush cinematography and the suspension of reality into the flourishing of image. This said, I am not convinced that the raw and also nuanced emotions of Tolstoy drama are the place for this sort of thing. The film is pretty and stupid and therefore conveys no sense of tragedy, sorrow or anything powerful beyond a ticklish aesthetic quality.

Celeste and Jesse Forever [Blu-ray] (Krieger, 2012) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

As a couple Celeste and Jesse are one part amusing and two parts annoying. As a film about a divorced couple who are also best friends there are some interesting comments to be made about modern relationships but mostly they appear horrifying on the basis of the constant defining measure of sexual acceptance and insecurity.

Chained [Blu-ray] (Lynch, 2012) Anchor Bay

An intriguing and disturbing central performance by Vincent D’Onofrio almost makes this watchable. What prevents that from happening is voyeuristic violence of a misogynistic sort and unnecessary plot twists.

Black Sunday [Blu-ray] (Bava, 1960) RB UK Arrow Film

Lisa and the Devil [Blu-ray] (Bava, 1974) RB UK Arrow Film

These two films are the lead and rave DVD review in the most recent edition of Sight and Sound. I am suspicious not merely because the reviews are largely plot summations and complimentary adjectives in the place of critical comment. My suspicions have to do with having seen the films and my sense that we live in a film culture that expresses a continual desire to uncover auteur treasures previously neglected by mass hysteria. These films are nicely filmed and the directors of photography are worthy of praise for their understanding of light and shadow, the acting and writing are poor to the point where one feels the director was not working in a medium particularly suited to his possible gifts. His milieu is the symbolic, from doorways appearing as keyholes, and clocks without hands, but none of this is echoed in actual human behavior and so human beings become symbols as well. But for what and for who? Participation in humanity as a symbol of something else makes the participant an actor in symbols and not in life; it is all, no matter how clever, an objectification. The appropriate, but disturbing, way to praise such objectification is to fetishize it. This is especially uncomfortable if it is done at the expense of actually undiscovered joys in the history of film and when our trusted critics come to be seen as carving out their own niches rather than mapping neglected regions.

Here Comes the Boom [Blu-ray] (Coraci, 2012) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The fun thing here is the big man with all the lithe comedic gestures. It is all cute but in my world cute is a negative term denoting the sentimental sold as desirable.

A Late Quartet [Blu-ray] (Zilberman, 2012) 20th Century Fox

My long standing dismissal of “classical” music is based on my verdict that it lacks subtlety. The music is stylistically unable to communicate small gestures, everything is sturm und drang or heartbreakingly delicate. It is sorrow instead of worry, grief instead of doubt, tragedy instead of insecurity. Because it has no real sense of rhythm it has no sense of the vulgar and thus it has no sense of life as it is lived and not just dramatized. I like the premise of this film about four members of a string quartet playing Beethoven’s late quartet, a piece of music so long that the instruments go out of tune before it is down and the musicians have to struggle to keep the whole thing from turning into a cacophony. But as a film it is the same music, all four people defined by the grandiose and the dull. Musically speaking, I like cacophonies.

A Star is Born [Blu-ray] (Pierson, 1976) Warner

You might think Kris Kristofferson is the worst pop star ever but then along comes Barbra Streisand. It is almost impossible not to hate this cinematic representation of the flattest aspects of seventies culture. If you like it, I predict that I hate you too.

Alex Cross [Blu-ray] (Cohen, 2012) Summit Entertainment

The problem is that the spectacle of logical demonstrations familiar from recent Sherlock Holmes television is both more distant from possible viewer recognition (his conclusions are based on evidences we are not shown) and, more importantly, does not contribute to making Cross a remotely interesting figure.

The Coalition [Blu-ray] (Mingo, 2012) Magnolia Home Entertainment

It is scary to me if this film in anyway mimics actual human behavior. The people are not monsters just shallow and self-indulgent to what seems to be a recommended degree.

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