“…your speaker likes to leave a movie theater.”

“The film image (including the sound) is what? A lure. I am confined with the image as if I were held in that famous duel relation which establishes the image-repertoire. The image is there, in front of me, for me: coalescent (its signified and signifier melted together), analogical, total, pregnant: it is a perfect lure: I fling myself upon it like an animal upon the scrap of ‘lifelike’ rag held out to him; and, of course, it sustains in me the mis-reading attatched to Ego and to image-repertoire. In the movie theater, however far away I am sitting, I press my nose against the screen’s mirror, against that ‘other’ image-repertoire with which I narcistically identify myself… the image captivates me, captures me: I am glued to the representation, and it is this glue which establishes naturalness (the pseudo-nature) of the filmed scene (a glue prepared with the ingredients of ‘technique’); the Real knows only distances, the Symbolic knows only masks; the image alone (the image-repertoire) is close, only the image is ‘true’ (can produce the resonance of truth).”

-Roland Barthes, “Leaving the Movie Theater”


The Sheridan Theater by Edward Hopper

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“…open, generous cinephilia”

The fact that I’m first and foremost a student of literature who spends about 98% of his internet time interacting with “film types,” has always created a dynamic for me that is constantly rewarding, but at times can also be a bit awkward…it’s not so much that movie bloggers and message board participants aren’t literary—I’d say a sizable percentage were literature undergraduates or at least started off as voracious readers before moving on to film—but many times I feel kind of separated because it is my reading that informs my movie watching, where for many others it often seems that the opposite is the case. But it seems lately literary and cinematic worlds have been intersecting and fusing together more tightly than usual. And it’s all rather exhilarating, I must say.

And one of the major sources of this is something very specific: just like every other movie-minded blogger out there, I’ve been enamored with the Adrian Martin interview “Responsibility and Criticism” which appears in the most recent edition of Italian film journal Cinemascope. The temptation, of course, is to post quotation and quotation, but that has already been done, perhaps girish’s blog, who captures a lot of the highlights, and started off a lively discussion. As a result, I feel no need to head down that path, but turn in a different direction.

Because a few weeks before being pointed in Martin’s direction, I read an essay that has proved to be just as provocative and inspiring—the title essay to Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?.” Adopting a format very similar to an interview, Calvino uses fourteen points in this 1981 essay to simultaneously define what a “classic” is and why a so-called classic deserves to be read (and enjoyed, he vigorously stresses).

Some of the similarities between the two men’s writing are striking. Consider:

“06) ‘A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.’”

and

“07) The classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed.’” (Calvino)

“…the cinema is always a laboratory, a field of experimentation: […] no experiment is ever exhausted, and no aesthetic or cultural problem is solved for all time. So, when we return to old films, we therefore see that they are completely contemporary to us and our concerns, if we are open to the traces of experimentation in them—there are always new ideas in old films.” (Martin)

Considering Martin’s diverse references in the interview, I would not be surprised if he was well acquainted with Calvino’s essay, as the similarity between these two excerpts is striking, down to the utilization of the same key words (“exhaustion,” “traces”)—if only Martin had opted to the term “classic film” instead of “old film!” Neither comments are necessarily groundbreaking, but rather serve as a welcome “duh, of course” moment.

Additionally, Martin’s passionate defense of Deleuze has not only convinced me that I need to finally take the step and take on a volume of film theory, it links back to a major theme Calvino also weighs on in length: milestones of early intellectual development, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with the recent change of location for my blog and trying to clarify what direction I wish to take it. I don’t seem to be the only one who had this reaction, as I was quite struck by a paragraph Andy Horbal wrote in his reaction to Martin’s article:

As an appetizer let me offer this one thought on being a young film blogger/film critic: it is essential to recognize that there’s no hurry. Right now it behooves us to watch, read, and talk about as much as possible. Writing is important too, but it’s a lesser priority. It’s unhealthy for a young film blogger/film critic to think of his or her blog as a platform for his or her film criticism, because all of us have a long way to go before we’re writing film criticism. These blogs of ours do represent an opportunity for us and our writing to get noticed, but more importantly they represent an opportunity for us to get better. One way to do that is to post ideas (as opposed to articles) and see how people respond.

A nice articulation of many things I’ve been thinking about, because like many others, I’ve found it’s easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over the lofty ideal that everything I write (or at least what I end up posting) has to mean something. But even though I’m now within a month of my 23rd birthday and I’ve passed the age of precociousness, the fact is I still am young. And certainly much too young to have forgotten the pure thrill and enjoyment both experiencing and subsequently interpreting art can give. My focus should and needs to be elsewhere, for a reason Calvino beautifully articulates:

“…youthful reading can be literally formative in that it gives a form or shape to our future experiences, providing them with models, ways of dealing with them, terms of comparison, schemes for categorizing them, scales of value, paradigms of beauty: all things which continue to operate in us even when we remember little or nothing about the book we read when young.”

Needless to say, there are many other points and ideas in both Calvino and Martin’s writing that I would love to point out and gush over, but traces of both will inevitably start surfacing strongly in my interaction with art from here on out, as Calvino (and my recent reading of Harold Bloom) has reenergized my appetite to read books and watch films (and listen to music and study the visual arts…) and Martin has inspired me to try out a different mode of reviewing and interpretation so far I haven’t had the guts to try. We’ll see what happens.

“your voice… it has no personality.”

Dreamgirls (2006) is the type of film that becomes so disorienting in all its glitter and glamour that it’s not really until afterwards that the awful realization hits: it really wasn’t all that good, was it? The main objection: why the hell make a film (or a stage production, or whatever) loosely based on the story of The Supremes, and fill it with songs more at home in High School Musical than classic Motown? I think it’s a good indication of the quality of the production’s songbook when one of the add-ons—Beyoncé’s big number, the Oscar® nominated “Listen”—was the only number that registered musically with me (‘tis a pity the song is narratively incongruous). And poor, inevitable Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson—yes, she gets to show off that powerful pair of lungs (because sing she does), but she is given a bunch of bum songs, the much-lauded, awkwardly titled “And I Tell You I’m Not Going” included. While Ms. Hudson certainly pours her heart and soul (almost painfully so) into each of her songs, they all have a tendency to blur together, and I couldn’t tell which was supposed to be the stand-out number refers to in hushed tones. But I suppose Hudson’s delivery style encapsulates the film’s general attitude—big, BIG,BIG!—which is a shame, since director Bill Condon is usually a filmmaker of such delicacy (case in point, the unfairly underrated Kinsey, another biopic of sorts). Not a bad film—I definitely enjoyed it while I was in the midst of brainlessly consuming it—but there’s nothing much to it either afterwards.

***

My thought on The Good Shepherd (2006), Robert de Niro’s directoral debut, can be pretty much summed up in a single phrase: massively, unforgivably dull. At least an hour too long and hamfistedly structured and paced (there’s a problem when every new scene has to be accompanied by a time and date—especially when it’s returning to the same one over and over). Matt Damon, judging the merits of his superb performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley can be very good in this type of introverted role, but unlike that film there is no underlying menace to add complexity and richness to the character; Angelina Jolie is totally wasted in a throwaway, one-note role. The only spark of life comes from Tammy Blanchard (so good in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows) as the woman who got away—that it’s a wordless performance (her character is deaf) makes its impact all the greater when placed against this turgid, wordy mess.

***

House of Sand (Casa de Areia) (2006) returns back to the realm of Antonioni where long silences and empty landscapes replace the articulation of words. Heavily indebted to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, House of Sand sends a motley band out into the Brazilian desert to accomplish one man’s dreams of establishing a homestead, but through some unexpected circumstances, soon only the man’s pregnant wife and her aging mother are left to fend for themselves against the sand and elements. Undoubtedly the film’s major selling point is the showcase pairing of real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro (of Central Station fame) and Fernanda Torres, and they switch in and out of the three central roles (for soon young Maria is born, creating the third central female role). In some ways, this could be viewed as a Cries and Whispers stranded in a barren desert, as the expanses of sand and sky become just as forbidding and claustrophobic as Bergman’s meticulous interiors, an environment ripe for the women to play their insecurities, fears and desperation off of each other. It’s the kind of film where it’s essential to jump onto the film’s meandering wavelength and hold on for the ride: the effect is rather hypnotic. But unfortunately, much like hypnosis, once the spell is broken it all rather fades away into the soft echo of a mostly-forgotten dream.

“i love you. yes i do. and i’ll always be true.”

I was introduced to Françoise Hardy in the closing months of 2006, and in a whirlwind courtship almost entirely conducted via YouTube, I fell in love.

Needless to say, YouTube clips offer a wealth of vintage videos featuring music virtually unavailable in the US. They’re also fascinating to watch in and of themselves–oftentimes time capsules of 1960’s Europe. My favorite discoveries involve Françoise flitting around Swinging London, though interestingly I don’t care much for her when she sings in English. Anyway, a few snippets of Françoise adventures on the other side of the English Channel:


A bastardization of “Tous les garçons et les filles,” her most famous song, but it has its own schlocky charm (complete with a swooning string section). Tantilizing views of Buckingham and Trafalgar from the back of a cab.


Back before Fergie raped our ears with convulated metaphors involving London bridges, Françoise was already taking full advantage of Tower Bridge’s picturesque qualities. A testament to the days when I white girl bobbing awkwardly in front a camera could pass as a music video.


Because we all have fantasies of floating around Piccadilly Circus sitting on a mound of pillows and dressed in pajamas. Right? RIGHT?

“i know where you keep your gun”

The reassertion of the Bond’s masculinity, a more focused script, a more-nuanced-than-most Bond girl and more than a touch of sadism are just a few of the elements that unexpectedly coalesce to help make Casino Royale a glorious return to form for cinema’s most celebrated spy. A year or so ago amidst all the bellyaching about the merits of the little-known, unconventionally handsome Daniel Craig replacing the foppish Pierce Brosnan in the coveted role, I had the opposite concern—I was afraid that the world’s most famous film franchise would destroy the skills of a supremely talented actor. 2004’s Layer Cake was more than enough evidence that Craig could take on a role of this type, but gone would be the idiosyncratic thespian of such flawed but interesting projects like Enduring Love, Sylvia and The Mother. No need to worry—if Craig can be this in-control of such an unwieldy action vehicle, I’m sure he can manage a career as well.

What interested me most was the inherent tension in the film via a role reversal: the sex god (as Bond usually is) for once has has become the sex object (is there another Bond whose body can compare? And director Martin Campbell gamely gives us more than a few eyefulls). Of course this comes to its climax with Craig replacing the precedent set decades ago by Ursula Andress as the beauty emerging from the clear ocean water, and Craig is able to pull it off because he seems so unconscious of his sex appeal (another Bond first?) which is further undercut but the occasional glimmers of vulnerability. The pairing with rising international star Eva Green is also an inspired touch: she’s certainly a stunner, but not perfect either (too many freckles, too much forehead)—but what counts is that the chemistry between her and Bond crackles with intensity, both sexually and emotionally. That the film drags on a little too long is easily forgiven, as is the unfortunately heavy-handed Death in Venice homage that threatens to overwhelm the fun. At first I was concerned that my initial favorable reaction was more lustful than thoughtful, but the passing weeks have left me convinced: Casino Royale features one of the year’s best performances in one of the best films of the year.

“restoring the romance of reading”

After finishing Harold Bloom’s eloquent The Western Canon, I immediately shot off an email to my college advisor, who also happened to be my Literary Theory prof, and said something to the effect of “this is one of those things that makes me wish our Theory class had been two semesters, just so you could have thrown this at us right at the end, just to really throw a wrench in our systems!”

Because after a semester of being indoctrinated in modern lit theory—from Structuralism, to Marxism to Postmodernism to Feminism and everything beyond and in between—after being reminded over and over of Barthes’s pronouncement that “the author is dead” and that the value of literature lies in hidden agendas often unbeknownst to even the authors themselves, this passionate defense against the politicalization of literature comes not necessarily as a revelation, but a welcome contrarian voice. The Western Canon contains whispering echo of Walter Pater and the “art for art’s sake” movement that is so dear to undergraduate heart, for to Bloom literature is not art, but an actual religion, with Shakespeare raised to an omniscient presence that not only defined literature ever-after, but literally shaped human nature into what we recognize it as today. Raising “the Shakespearian perspective” to a literal theory, he then goes through major points of what he deems “the Western Canon,” and applies this perspective from texts starting with the Bible and The Odyssey on down to Beckett, who he considers the last indisputable Canonical author (though he throws out the names Pynchon, Merrill and Ashbery as likely future additions to his esteemed literary assemblage), and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work most of the time, yielding interesting insight into a number of unexpected literary works, and even at the points one is most likely to disagree, it’s impossible to deny that Bloom’s perspective isn’t a fascinating one.

Before taking on this book, I always had the vague notion in my head that Bloom was a rather outdated old fogey, the most famous of the hanger-ons of the Formalist approach to literature that essentially died out mid 20th century. I expected to read the articulate thoughts of a ethnocentric, perhaps even misogynistic dinosaur—but I’ll be the first to admit that from the first pages my assumptions were proved wildly incorrect. From the very beginning Bloom acknowledges that importance of non-Western literature, but humbly admits he lacks the necessary expertise to tackle the subject. And it becomes obvious in the statement that “except Shakespeare, [Emily] Dickinson manifests more cognitive originality than any other Western poet since Dante”—the ultimate compliment from Bloom’s perspective—that he can’t be written off as the last sage of the “dead white male” school either. Instead, Bloom is a man wildly, even hysterically in love with literature, and his enthusiasm quickly becomes infectious. And as much as I find value in various literary theories (which Bloom slyly labels “The Schools of Resentment”), I tip my hat to this august figure, because I think he’s on to something—a deep, overwhelming love of all things literary is truly a scarcity these days, something that is not only a great loss not only to university literature departments, but to humanity at large (now how’s that for capping of with a grandiose Bloomian pronouncement?)

Two More from 2006

Perhaps it was the coincidence that I saw Babel the day after I made my first trip across the border into Tijuana—bringing on the realization that disparate worlds really aren’t all that far apart—made me so receptive to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, the latest, impeccably acted installment in the current penchant for the-world-is-a-connect-the-dot-puzzle type of film that has many film buffs moaning in Crash-inspired lamentation. The biggest flaw (and the element that causes the greatest rankle among critics) seems to be Iñárritu and script co-writer Guillermo Arriaga’s insistence on linking the three continent-spanning storylines together, something which really didn’t bother me all that much since it’s an extremely common device found in literature. And that is how Babel worked most strongly for me—as a short story collection, or a triptych not all that far away from another 2006 film, Hou Hsio-Hsein’s Three Times. Yeah, in both films it might be possible stitch the stories thematically together, but isn’t it a much more pleasurable experience to simply savor the individual elements that make each story unique?

Perhaps it’s because the Japanese storyline centering around Rinko Kikuch is so beautifully rendered that I’m willing to give the rest of the film—whose admirable qualities are much more intermittent in nature—an easy pass. I’d go as far as to say that Iñárritu’s spin on essentially the same material taken on in the third section of Three Times is infinitely more successful than what Hou ended up with. While Iñárritu may initially have it easier because the character’s deafness literalizes the sensation of alienation, the way it plays out—fragilely, unexpectedly—is ultimately more satisfying because it shows that beneath the modern-day emotional malaise there is a beating heart aching to connect with someone or something. Which brings me to a quote I recently happened to come across in my recent readings of poet Anne Carson:

clear as Babel,

such a tower! scattered through the heart…

While the metaphor of the film’s title seems just a tad too opaque (and the decision to annunciate the word like “babble” at the Golden Globes is just too funny, especially considering the complaints of many of its detractors), I think Carson sums up the general sentiment behind Iñárritu’s film—that we’re still trying to overcome the seeds of disconnection and discontent that began back the Biblical story of Babel.  I’m still undecided whether or not Iñárritu’s effort to help bridge that gap succeeds or fail to acheive its lofty goals, but there is some undeniable resonance in his frantic attempt.  Babel is, at the very least, a collection of wonderfully rendered moments packaged in a slightly-less-than-desirable package, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work for me.

***

Notes on a Scandal (2006) is what happens when the prune-faced busybody glimpsed on the fringes of hundreds of books and films—the type always peering through pulled curtains at her passing neighbors—is placed front center, given her own film to wreak havoc on. Dame Judi Dench is the latest in an ever-growing line of actresses willing to de-glam for a showy role (as funny as it is to say it)–the regal thespian here plays a mousy, undistinguished schoolteacher bitter at how her life has played out, which manifests itself in the cultivation of odd obsessions with younger female colleagues. Cate Blanchett plays the latest victim to find herself caught in the web of this black widow, giving a performance that is so subtly shaded that its complexity can be easily overlooked (for once, the Academy can’t be blamed for doing this). 

Essentially, this is the stuff of Sirk films and countless studio-era melodramas are made of, the difference being the lurid subject matter (pedophilia! lesbianism! blowjobs behind closed doors!) can be more explicitly disclosed than it ever was in the past.  And it seems it is on that level that most reviewers have reacted to the film—overblown melodrama—with some even expressing disappointment that director Richard Eyre doesn’t take the material to its campy extreme. God knows this is a film rife with potential “Neely O’Haaaaaaara!” moments—and it’s testament to the acting skills of Dench and Blanchett that the film never lapses into such ridiculousness (as sublime as the effect can be, admittedly). And that’s where I think the film is at its most interesting—it constantly subverts the audience expectation for high camp, transforming what could easily have been a screamer into something more thoughtful, and ultimately haunting. Because how is one supposed to react to a woman who can use phrases like “prepubescent paramour” as she describes her humdrum day in her nightly journal? Laugh? Perhaps, but at the same time there’s also something implicitly sad about the entire situation—this is obviously the warped perspective of a person who has suffered a lifetime full of unfulfilled dreams and constant disillusionment, a realization that makes this film more poignant than perhaps it was ever intended to be.

“searching for things sublime…”

“l’(never
anywhere
simply absent
or—how
plunged does the mind have to be)
Avventura: caught
in the time of the island, scraping themselves back and forth over
the rocks, men slant against the wind and her golden
hair going horizontal in whips on the ectastic sea…”

(L’ (Ode to Monica Vitti))

I discovered Anne Carson purely on accident, coming across her volume Decreation as I randomly pulled out unknown books from the poetry section of my local Borders (a regular habit of mine). I hadn’t heard of her before, but was instantly fascinated—a poet of any kind who writes poems with titles like “L’ (Ode to Monica Vitt)” and “Kant’s Questions about Monica Vitti” automatically is classified under the mental category “I must check this out as soon as possible.”

Furthermore, the book’s subtitle—“Poetry * Essays * Opera”—was deeply intriguing, for more than anything, I have an interest in artists whose subjects and subject matter bleed into other artistic mediums and areas of study. And that’s exactly what Decreation is—a collection of writing of all kinds, ranging from essays on how sleep is depicted throughout literature (offering a particularly compelling reading of the central section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), to a meditation on Beckett’s abstract play “Quadrat II,” to the closing “Longing, a Documentary,” in which Carson composes a brief screenplay of camera angles and poetic subtitles.

But it was the sections of musings centering largely on Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti that most captured my attention. In the essay “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni” she comes up with likely the most compelling descriptions of Antonioni’s distinctive style that I’ve ever encountered:

”Whether or not Antonioni’s films are sublime, Antonioni’s use of Antonioni is sublime.”

Carson seems fascinated with the raw emotions lurking beneath Antonioni’s serene style and Vitti’s glacial visage, and that’s a good description of her own work—despite the emotionally-charged topics she takes on, Carson is a relentlessly cerebral poet, to the point where she can be maddeningly enigmatic. But curiously, she’s one of the few writers I’ve come across in what Zadie Smith recently labeled in an article in The Guardian as “these metaphysically challenged times” to explore and freely incorporate such terms as “the soul” and “the sublime” into her writing. This is perhaps what makes Carson the type of poet I see myself returning to again and again (much like Antonioni)—enigmatic she might be, but somehow, there’s the impression that a whole world of emotions and sensations lurking somewhere beneath.