all that jazz

I tend to find documentaries play better for me in an intimate home video setting as opposed to the more grandiose theatrical experience, and so despite considering myself a fan, it was with trepidation that I wandered into the uninspiredly titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2008). O’Day, who until her passing last year was widely considered the last great female jazz vocalist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughn, led the type of life one can easily imagine being made into a biopic that wins actresses Academy Awards—there is enough heroin, failed marriages, memorable music and Esther Blodgett-esque comebacks to supply material for a dozen industrious screenwriters. But always cutting through the stock-documentary checklist of events-to-cover is O’Day herself. A startling firecracker of a woman, one moment she’s the hard-boiled, sharp-featured stock blonde of a 40’s noir, the next she’s a folksy Barbara Jean (of Nashville fame) good-naturedly burbling away at god knows what.

The film is worth watching for the skewering of even her most wrenching memories with sly humor, but of primary importance: that voice! At first careening through the quarter note vocal pyrotechnics of a song like “Tea for Two” with dazzling ease, later there’s the ravaged voice that hints at countless personal stories and long private histories contained within each uttered word. And O’Day’s story ends up being inspirational, almost despite itself, as here is a woman who beat the odds and continued to do the thing she loved most until she almost literally dropped dead. Indestructible! was the title of her last album, released just three years ago—and it serves as a remarkable summation of O’Day herself (pity it wasn’t used as the title for the film itself).

Intrigued by the clip shown and O’Day’s pronouncement that the glowing notices she subsequently received in The New York Times was “the highlight of [her] life,” I tracked down Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960) and was more or less unprepared for the sheer greatness I beheld. O’Day wasn’t kidding when she emphasized that everyone was there at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958: Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton and countless others not actually shown in the film—that these performances were captured at all for posterity is impressive enough, but then, what performances!

Interspersed between O’Day’s expert deconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Louis Armstrong’s onstage banter and Big Maybelle’s earthy growl is footage that turns the cameras upon the assembled crowds with fascinating results—several times a barely-glimpsed attendee makes as indelible impression as the performers themselves.  This allows for unexpected sociological observation: the pre-Civil Rights crowd wasn’t neatly segregated as I had expected—young blacks down from Harlem sat interspersed with the Newport white elite in their expensive suits and pearls (sometimes reality can be so much more complex than the tidy demarcations made in history textbooks).

And then there’s Mahalia Jackson, who performs three songs to close out the film. Unassumingly radiant, watching her thunder through “Didn’t it Rain,” occasionally slapping together her hands for emphasis, is as euphoric an experience as anything I can imagine; then, at the close and the crowd roars and she bashfully keeps averting her eyes from the audience before murmuring “how you make me feel like a star!”—well, that’s just transcendence itself.

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parisian escapades

Dans Paris (France, 2006), Christophe Honoré’s loose, Nouvelle Vague-inspired riff on J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey was my most anticipated film of 2007—and the powers that be sure made me wait long enough to finally see it (an almost nonexistent theatrical release, then a delayed DVD release, etc, etc).  Happily, it didn’t disappoint despite my ceaselessly growing anticipation; indeed, far from it: in many ways it’s much more than I dared let myself hope for.

Split into two very distinct but intertwined storylines embodied by two brothers, we have Roman Duris as a transformed “Franny,” heart-sick and pitifully bundled up in his private, somewhat silly miseries, and Louis Garrel as “Zooey,” irresistibly, almost obnoxiously gregarious, prone to spouting ill-timed but well-meaning insight and advice.  Like in Salinger’s story, intricate family dynamics drive the film, as does the interplay within the cramped familial apartment, a much lived-in space perpetually echoing with memories and the ghosts of the past that hover in forgotten corners.  Perhaps it was because I was just starting Bachelard’s seminal The Poetics of Space when I watched this film that I was particularly attuned to the matter, but I can’t think of another film that comes near to Honoré’s precise depiction of how people act and interact within their most intimate spaces—particularly their homes—unashamedly lounging about in various states of undress, blissfully unaware of how any “objective analysis” would quickly reveal the ridiculousness of the little soap operas that unfold behind closed doors and drawn curtains.  It’s rather miraculous to behold, in a low-key way.

But Honoré never allows the proceedings to get too insular—something which could be considered both the strength and the weakness of Salinger’s novella—using Garrel’s youthful antics (cue Demy) out and about in Paris (cue Band of Outsiders) to counterbalance the dark pathos of Duris’s emotional breakdown.  A lovely film which seems so slight and ephemeral at first glance but which I have a haunch might be an impressive, perhaps even  a legitimately important achievement.

the sound of silence

Watching Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (France/Switzerland/Germany, 2005) dovetailed nicely with my reading of Umberto Eco’s excellent The Name of the Rose, even if both are completely different beasts: where Eco’s religious murder mystery piles on the concepts and endless words, Gröning sticks solely with his eloquent non-verbal images (originally about 100 hours worth of them).

A documentary in the sense that it attempts to quietly capture and observe life “directly,” it lacks any kind of storyline to latch onto, no voiceovers, no interviews (with one notable exception) and no kind of outside analysis, instead opting to depict the band of Carthusian monks inhabiting the ancient, magnificent Grand Chartreuse monastery simply going about their unexceptional day. Or should I say days, which is more or less unchanging, and provides one of the film’s overarching themes that ultimately becomes the string that ties it all together—the cyclicality of the Brothers’s strictly ordered days, which accumulate into seasons, which amass into years, and then decades and lifetimes and finally a whole 1,000 year old religious tradition (as the bonus features notes, little has changed for the Carthusians since their founding in 1080).

Considered the Church’s strictest order, complete with vows of silence, Gröning watches the brothers going about their day, often in solitude, praying, reading, writing, or performing their individual tasks, be it cooking, gardening, managing the finances, chopping wood or even cutting hair (someone’s got to do it, right?). But the literal “great silence” of the title, while certainly solemn in an imposingly harsh, Northern European fashion, isn’t in the least sad but rather seems exceedingly peaceful, and to the film’s credit, its grueling, somewhat exasperating structure (nearly three hours of unobtrusive observation where very little “happens”) gives a sense of how this state of mind develops without ever trying to get the brothers to explain it or translate the experience into words.

There is never any attempt to establish some kind of enlightening interiority in the brothers depicted, but the humanity inevitably bubbles through the austerity, particularly in two all-too-brief sequences: one where a group of brothers trek through snowy mountain slopes and slide down a mountainside, laughing at each other as they slip and tumble, and one of the rare occasions when the vow of silence is lifted for a few hours and they sit in a circle and simply converse with one another. And what do they talk about?  Only the value of the tradition of washing hands before meals. How utterly trivial, and yet, one can’t help but feel, how extremely appropriate. This is a different world, indeed, almost a completely different universe, before now virtually unglimpsed, an enigma in the end much more beautiful than anything Eco can manage to accomplish in his fiction.

it’s strictly a family affair

I have not a thing to say about the longstanding what’s Cocteau?/what’s Melville? debate that continues to haunt Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, France,1950) a half a century after the fact, other than venture that the push/pull between these two unique artistic visions can be blamed for the somewhat uneven quality of the film and the deep sense of unease that seems to churn beneath its highly polished surface.

The first act is the most compelling as it introduces the enclosed universe of Elisabeth and Paul and explores the rules of their private little games; once the film stumbles outside the tight confines of their room the film seems to constantly threaten to lapse into prim qualité française dullness.  But the magnetic draw of intimate—perhaps even quasi-erotic—spaces prove too strong, and once the siblings (plus two more) reintroduce themselves into a facsimile of their old room the film’s lurid, potent poetry blossoms once again, and tragedy quickly, inevitably follows.  There are a number of missteps, such as the duel casting of Renée Cosima in the role of both male and female love interest never functions in any kind of interesting way.  But in the end Nicole Stéphane’s tour-de-force performance contains a propulsive force all its own, pushing and pulling everything in her wake according to her violently capricious whims, and ultimately nothing—not even the film itself—dares stand in her way.

What to make of Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, USA, 2008)?  A haunting, prickly film, though not necessarily because of (or perhaps in spite of) its controversial subject matter.  The film is being sold as a biopic of the infamous Barbara Daly Baekeland, murdered by her only son, the sole heir to the immense Bakelite plastics fortune; as the alternately fragile and monstrous central character, Julianne Moore received almost uniformly rave reviews.  To be sure, she gives a ferocious performance, and takes her place alongside the Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest mode (but then, a mother offering herself as a “cure” for her son’s homosexuality is a far, far cry from wire hangers, however much they sting).

Days later I’m still struggling to discover a way to grasp onto the sheer oddity of the film, if only because it seems so relentlessly off-centered—ultimately it’s not Moore’s film, but an unexpectedly poignant portrait of the son she both nurtured and/or destroyed, played with impressive subtlety by the up-and-coming Eddie Redmayne.  Further emphasizing the off-kilter aura is the giant fragments of narrative left completely untouched as the film flits from decade to decade, location to location; eventually the narrative logic seems to begin entering the realm of mirages and dreamscapes instead of “objective facts,” festering and decaying in its luscious, late-Visconti-like interiors and sunny, potentially hazardous beachside escapes.  Finally a point is reached that feels like we have to deduce for ourselves what the hell happened in this exceedingly disturbing set of life stories, but then, that could very well be the point—without the presence of Oedipus’s gods cruelly ordaining everything from afar, can such circumstances be explained?

reappearance

Not back, not really.  I haven’t really missed Memories of the Future in my time since I gave it up, though occasionally I do puzzle over its ultimate fate.  The thing is, I have kept up with my writing, and now I have an unwieldy backlog of capsule reviews accumulated over the last year that are increasingly difficult to access in a Word document (and I dearly need them, given my lamentably awful ability to retain details or even impressions over an extended period of time).  That and the slight shock I received recently when I took a look at my blog stats and realized I’m still receiving nearly as many hits per day as I was when I was posting original content (and I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to feel about that, actually).

So anyway, I’ve decided for the time being I’m going to start posting my little capsule reviews, mostly for myself, but also for whoever it is that’s out there still reading (because the stats show that the Review Index is still being accessed on a regular basis)—hello, whoever you are!  My approach to writing these has grown increasingly inward and memory-oriented—more often than not I regard them as attempts to capture my particular memories of a film than as any particular attempt at analysis—so if they’re a bit incomprehensible or meaningless outside of myself, well, I apologize, but often that is rather the point.

endless returns

One of my great pleasures is introducing Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, USA, 2004) to unsuspecting individuals… I always worry that its extreme talkiness will bore, but it has always worked its magic and everyone I’ve yet shared it with has been enchanted.  This time around was no different.  I’ve reached the point now where I can anticipate every sequence, even every word as it unfolds—and while the film never changes I certainly do, and I look forward to what my reaction each time around will be, as the film doesn’t necessarily reveal new nuances upon each revisit, but instead triggers unexpected revelations in myself.  I’ve just finished Jonathan Rosenbaum’s autobiography Moving Places: A Life at the Movies where he uses the (justly?) forgotten Doris Day vehicle On Moonlight Bay as a springboard for extended Proustian reveries… Before Sunset functions for me much the same way.  Still the greatest film I’ve ever seen, or the most special one (if there’s any difference between the two at all).