Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Criticism in the Year 2014

Before 2015, I want to highlight some online film criticism that left an impression on me in 2014.  Again and again, I find myself thinking about or reading these pieces because of the prose and the ideas expressed in them.  This is writing that more people should read and more people should write.  So, I would like to share it.  Hopefully, they are as meaningful to you as they are to me.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Favorite (U.S. released) Films of 2014 (Part 2)

10. Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira, 2012)

9. Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, 2014)

8. Jealousy (Philippe Garrel, 2013)

7. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013)

6. Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013)

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)

4. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)

3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

1. The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favorite (U.S. released) Films of 2014 (Part 1)

20. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

19. It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2013)

18. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, 2014)

17. Daredevils (Stephanie Barber, 2013)

16. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

15. Soft in the Head (Nathan Silver, 2013)

14. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014)

13. Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)

12. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, 2013)

11. What Now? Remind Me (Joaquim Pinto, 2013)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Scary Movies 8

On Film Comment's blog, I wrote about some of the highlights in the Film Society's annual horror series, "Scary Movies."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Goodbye Language, Hello Communication (Goodbye to Language, 2014)

As a participant in Indiewire's Critic's Academy, I wrote two essays while attending the 52nd New York Film Festival.  One compares Jean-Luc Godard's film with Ryan Trecartin's video art work.  You can find the piece here.

Fontaínhas Follies (Horse Money, 2014)

As a participant in Indiewire's Critic's Academy, I wrote two essays while attending the 52nd New York Film Festival.  One considers Horse Money and Fontaínhas' slow death over the course of Pedro Costa's prior films.  You can find the piece here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heavy Liquid (Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat, 1988)

In a drab white office, reminiscent of a miniature Billy Wilder office space, a woman picks up a coffee cup, points it and gazes in the direction of her boyfriend, colleague, and the film’s main figure.  Inscribed on the cup is: “Sex is not a four letter word.”  Cut to a close-up of the man, reciprocating by holding up an identical white cup, except reading “But fuck is.”  Welcome, you are in the looney tune world of Philip Brophy.

As a long time reader of Brophy’s writing, I’ve been meaning to see his films.  And what a discovery!  They are like his writing: packed with detail and deliriously playing with the materiality of things, their plasticity, figures in general, and the body in particular.  His mid-length film, the hilarious Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat, is one of the best things I’ve seen this month. 

Quadruple S uses daily routine (getting up, going to work, lunch hour, dinner with the girlfriend, late night TV-watching, sleep) in order to establish variations in the details.  Over the course of four days, the main figure will wake up to coffee brewing, from talking in his sleep, from a wet dream, and from the alarm clock’s blaring ring.  The idea of awakening mutates in four ways. 

Another one of these variations deals with a computer at the figure’s work.  On the monitor are passages that wax pithy, axiomatic, humorous thoughts about the human body.  Is the figure writing this moist manifesto or the computer?  These zany structuralist variations happen all throughout the film.  If Hong Sang-soo had a vulgar sense of humor and a faster metabolism, his films would look like this.   

Brophy’s follow-up, his  affectionate send-up of body horror, Body Melt, extends the variations on a structure to a feature-length format.  Something is lost though.  Made to decimate the sitcom figures Brophy loathes, the film’s characters are meat puppets, one and all, built for slashing, extending, distending, exploding, rotting, and above all, melting.  The film’s progression builds and builds, yet never releases (which is in contrast to the releasing bodies).  This may be an intentional move to subvert expectations, but I’m not sure.

SSSS, on the other hand, is precise, sticking to the morning-noon-night structure for 47 minutes.  Here,  it is clear that Brophy is a moment-to-moment, shot-to-shot filmmaker.  It is no wonder that he uses storyboards.  Each shot is a single piece fitting into a unit, making up a sequence.  Each shot is visceral, the camera positioned full-frontal with the subject.  It’s an in-your-face style to capture the maximum pornography of details, the manipulation and permutation of things.   

SSSS reduces mundane life to its fundamental liquids.  Each of the film’s sections discharges a bodily concept.  Salt = Nourishment.  Saliva = Communication.  Sperm = Sex.  Sweat = Violence.   Glazed on top of all this is Brophy’s nutty humor.  SSSS is Brophy’s examination of the body as a soft machine that needs lubricating, cleaning, repair, and energy.  The body is a machine that ingests, digests, and secretes.  It is malleable, changing according to the day.  Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat.  Get wet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dandy Divine in a Lamé: Timothy Carey and The World's Greatest Sinner

Timothy Carey, the name has a certain aura to it.  Some cinephiles know this feeling, those who go out on a limb and watch what little role he has.  Carey, a character actor who zigzagged through the latter half of American cinema’s history, from A to Z pictures and everything in between, had a special talent.  He could make a thin role into something memorable.  He threw his 6’ 4’’ body around and spoke with a voice that sounded more like a cement mixer.  He stole scenes, evaporating the memory of those that came before and after it.
Only Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes managed to integrate Carey into their films seamlessly.  For both filmmakers, he appeared twice in their work.  For Kubrick: The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957).  For Cassavetes: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).  They were able to rein in Carey, controlling his high-strung acting for maximum effect.  In Paths of Glory, in fact, Carey gives a career-performance.  An interlude from the psychotics he often played, as Private Ferol, Carey is a smooth man, someone who would fit in with Jack Kerouac and co., not WWI France.[i]  By film’s end, he becomes unraveled.  Along with Ralph Meeker and Joe Turkel, he’s one of the soldiers court-martialed and executed.  “I don’t want to die,” he repeats, sniveling, whimpering, and crying as he faces the firing squad.

For every friend, Carey had three or four enemies, people who couldn’t tolerate his brand of free-wheeling, combusting improvisation.  Fact and legend often blur in Hollywood history.  In Carey’s case, there seems to be more legend than fact.  His bouts with actors and directors are tabloid-worthy and tailor-made to his outsider persona.  Billy Wilder and James B. Harris fired him.[ii]  Elia Kazan dubbed his guttural lines.[iii]  Richard Widmark and Karl Malden beat him.  Marlon Brando stabbed him with a pen.[iv]  Always cheeky, Carey proclaimed that he was fired more than any other actor in Hollywood.[v] 

In 1962, Timothy Carey released[1] a film as nutty as the characters he played – The World’s Greatest Sinner.  Shot on the cheap (around $100,000) and partially self-financed[vi] [vii], Sinner makes up for all the bit parts Carey played previously and subsequently.  In almost every shot, Sinner is all Carey.  He plays Clarence Hilliard, a bored insurance salesman who becomes a rock icon, a presidential candidate, a dictator, but above all, a superhuman being.  This last one belongs to a cross-eyed, Nietzchean ideology that he promotes.  Now called God Hilliard, he proclaims that everyone is capable of being superhumans, of being their own God.  Of course, Hilliard is the leader of these man-gods.  He advocates eternal youth and bans death.  By film’s end, the power-hungry Hilliard even challenges God.

Sinner is Privilege’s idiot cousin.  It’s hamstrung by flat performances and cheap sets.  The narrative bits collide into each other.  This gives the film an amateur feel.  Couple this with the surprising formal choices Carey makes (cutting before a scene ends, shooting scenes without sound, varying shot angles) and you have an example of naïve art reminiscent of Trent Harris and Crispin Glover’s work.  Unlike the ironic weirdness of Rubin & Ed or the mannered weirdness of What is It? Sinner is sincerely strange. It’s partly audacious and partly buffoonery.

Consider one of Clarence’s first attempts to address the public.  Before his tub-thumping politicking rallies-cum-concerts, Clarence is in the bowels of suburbia. After a few strums of his guitar, he says: “Everybody! Clarence Hilliard is here.”  Framed in a low-angle shot, an etched figure in front of clouds, he continues: “I’m not a preacher, and I’m not drunk, I’m just a politician.  He hears me.”  Clarence shoots out his index finger, pointing to someone off-screen.  Cut to a reverse shot, and we see one lone man walking on the street.  We hear the cries of a dog off in the distance.  “Does anyone else here me around here.  I formed a new party, called the Eternal Man’s party, even if I have to tell it to the dogs and chickens.  Everybody come on up out of your houses, Clarence Hilliard is gonna make you a superhuman being.”  More strumming as he tilts his head up in exhalation.  Cut to one of these lonely houses.  As soon as the door opens, there’s a sharp cut back to Clarence, swinging his body around in the opposite direction, pointing once more.  “There’s the first lady!”  The finger turns first, into a gracious hand, palm facing up, and then extending to the sky – a motion of power. “Lady, I can make you live forever.”
Hands play an important role in the film.  Hands extend out.  Hands ball into fists.  Hands shoot into the air.  Hands splay on the chest in a moment of fake sincerity.  These are the movements and gestures of that rhetorical wizard and mythic creature called God Hilliard.

Within a cut, a smattering of people appear before Clarence as if out of the air.  He gets on top of something to address the growing crowd.  From the back side, we see him gesticulating wildly, hands shooting out this way and that, pointing every which way.  The camera tilts down to reveal what he’s standing on -- a pile of bags with a sign that says: “Fertilizer 4 Bags 1$.”  Of course, Carey sells shit.  In his last project, a surreal play called The Insect Trainer, he’ll sell us farts.

From the toilet to the transcendent, that’s Sinner’s narrative path.  Near the end, God Hilliard challenges God. He pokes holes in “the body of Christ” to see if it bleeds, thereby confirming God’s existence.  Alas, no blood, there’s just a whole-y piece of bread, sending Clarence in a knee-slapping, cackling fit.  Clarence leaves the room and returns to his superhuman being headquarters – a building across his lawn.  A cut back to the wafer corresponds with feint moans heard over the soundtrack.  The camera follows a thick trail of blood across the grass.  The shot is startling, even entrancing, because the trail is so consistent in width, and because the camera hovers so close to it, so quickly.  From here, there’s a backward movement, back to the house, back to the room, and back to the wafer as Clarence runs to the trail’s source.  Opening the door, the black and white image switches to red.  Clarence shrieks and writhes.  This is one of cinema’s supreme miracle moments, up there with Ordet and Viaggio in Italia, and it’s found in the gutter.


[1] Although screened in 1962, Carey would continue to tinker with the film for the rest of his life, re-editing and shooting new material.

[i] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Key Person: Timothy Carey - Killing a cockroach in Path's of Glory." Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events that Made Movie Magic, edited by Chris Fujiwara, (London: Cassell Illustrated, 2007), 274.
[ii] Grover Lewis, “Cracked Actor: Timothy Carey,” Film Comment 40.1 (2004): 61.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Lewis, 59.
[vi] Millie de Chirico, “Behind the Scenes,”, Turner Entertainment Networks, INC.
[vii] McAbee.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In a Glass Cage (Nil by Mouth, 1997)

The film begins on a high.  Intercut with the opening credits, in close-ups, Ray (Ray Winstone) orders drinks at a nightclub bar.  He carries the tray of drinks over to where his wife, Val (Kathy Burke), and mother-in-law (Laila Morse) sit.  Ray spats with Val, but the words are nearly inaudible, drowned out by the club din.  He takes the remainder of the drinks to a table of men on the other side of the club.  Sitting down, Ray listens and contributes to a series of crude anecdotes tossed around in this boy’s club.
DP, Ron Fortunato’s handheld camerawork gives the scene an itchy, throbbing, intimacy, which moves to capture gestures as the men recount stories – hands drawing the narrative, eyes exaggerated for maximum theatrical effect, mouths contorted in laughter. 

So far, Nil By Mouth, the only film by Gary Oldman[1], recalls John Cassavetes’ work, particularly Husbands.  The kineticism and macho-bonding is all here in the first ten minutes.  Shortly thereafter, Nil’s mood changes a darker shade, (and not the existential kind seen in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie).

The revelry and exhilaration leak into the next day and night.  Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), Ray’s brother-in-law, tags along.  The festivities become rambunctious, more rowdy, as the gang moves from an arcade to a strip-joint while taking drugs and an assortment of booze.  Finally, the night ends with a beating; Ray sucker punches a man who, in some way, did him wrong.

Back at home, after the night out, Billy shoots up with some of Ray’s heroin, the dope dealer that he is.  The following morning, Ray looms over Billy, who’s still asleep.  Ray erupts, thrashing Billy, screaming inches away from his face, wanting to know where his supply is.  The pressure that the film has been building explodes. The film’s rhythm quickens to the tension as Ray, this hulking brute of a figure, chomps on Billy’s nose.
Nil by Mouth splits its focus on these two male figures of a working-class London family.  It follows them when separate, and, explosively, when together.  Indeed, the film has what Adrian Martin calls a plateau narrative structure[2] - a slow build to a confrontation of bodies, a gradual decline, and then onto the next confrontation.   Like a vacuum, Billy and Ray’s family get pulled into their problems.  Billy’s mother supports his drug addiction monetarily.  In a drunken paranoia, Ray batters Val, who happens to be pregnant. 

With the domestic violence, Oldman appears to be in Kitchen sink realism territory.  But the film’s aesthetic betrays such characteristics of that type of filmmaking. Along with Cassavetes, Nil by Mouth is a heady cocktail, blending the manic-energy of Alan Clarke’s social dramas and the piss-yellow of Nan Goldin’s photography.

Oldman intermingles the uncomfortable intimacy, seen in the extended opening, with distance.  He balances the near and the far by using glass, which is one of Nil by Mouth’s visual motifs.  In Ray’s cramped apartment, for example, a glass partition separates the living room and the kitchen.  Fortunato often films the characters through either side of the glass.  It is like looking through a microscope slide, observing this family entrapped in their own private hell, which is ready to spill out into the public at any minute.  “Oh, mum.  I just don’t want anyone knowing,” Val says, black and blue after Ray batters her.

Now alone in the kitchen, Ray drinks, ranting to his reflection in a mirror.  The isolation too much for him, Ray obliterates this glass cage, tossing furniture around.  Earlier, we see Ray sitting at the kitchen table, watching a TV set that’s playing in the living room.  On the glass, we see the faint image of the program -- a family gathered around a dinner table, ideal domesticity.

In Billy, there’s an echo of Ray.  He’s distant from his family, yet dragging them down, financially, ethically, with his drug addiction.  As with Ray, visual motifs of entrapment correspond with Billy.  Walking through the hallway of a housing project, he’s seen in front of the vertical bars of a door.  He calls a drug dealer in a phone booth.  With his chums, he haunts a launderette.  We see him milling about the space through the window – the equivalent of the glass partition. 

Haven turns to prison when a knife-wielding man traps Billy and his friend in the launderette.  The next scene, Billy’s in an actual prison cell.  Unlike Ray though, he’s comfortable in his isolation, shooting up a smuggled stash of heroin.  He’s free to annihilate himself without involving his family.

With Billy locked away and Ray making amends with Val, one wonders if this family has achieved stability or if this is merely a temporary stasis for a chain of suffering that’s passed down, from male to male, through generations.

[1]Oldman’s next project seems like the opposite of Nil – a big budget film about Eadweard Muybridge, Flying Horse.
[2] Martin, Adrian. “Driven.” Mesh 18.  2005. Web.