Rec Room: Emerging from the Abyss (otherwise known as a day job)

Hey, shiny new layout! And as promised, I haven’t forgotten this blog–in fact, I think writing in it maintains my sanity (what that says about the last two months, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide).

I’m working on some more thematic entries that will take a bit more time to write, but in the meantime I want to pass along some recommendations:

Film: I recently checked out the 1988 film The Vanishing (not be confused with the American remake of the same name, starring Jeff Bridges). I was somehow unaware of this film, and the notoriety of its third-act twist, but I’m so glad I went in completely unspoiled. The story is of Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege) a young Dutch couple who are travelling through France on holiday when she suddenly disappears at a rest stop. The film follows Rex and he spends the next years of his life obsessively tracking down her abductor. It’s a fascinating film for its pacing alone, which I imagine is what got audiences talking when the film first came out. It’s hard to know what to expect from a film that reveals its villain before he’s even committed the crime. It makes you consider the reality of such a nightmare: the feeling of someone you love disappearing into thin air, and the impact that would have on your life. Highly recommended. Do yourself a favor and go in spoiler-free.

Continuing on to nearby Sweden, I finally checked out Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, because I am a cinematic masochist (more on that at a later date). I somehow haven’t seen much Bergman, but man is he a cynical bastard. If we are to take the relationship between Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) as typical–or even normal–then marriage is nothing more than a particularly twisted codependency. Few scenes have hit me as hard as that of the couple’s first separation. As I watched Johan dispassionately tell his wife he was leaving her for another woman, I thought of all the people I know who’ve split and for the first time felt I had a window into what hell those final conversations must have been. This is an extraordinary film, but you have to brace yourself to be emotionally pummeled.

Television: Slate’s Pop Culture Gabfest podcast has been getting me through my workdays lately, and one of their many excellent recommendations was the BCC miniseries The Forsyte Saga. It’s an epic period soap-opera starring pretty much every “Hey! It’s That English Guy!” working today (including Rupert Graves, who I’ve loved ever since he frolicked in the buff in A Room With A View). For those who gobbled up Downton Abbey earlier this year, it’s equally engrossing and a great way to get your salacious period drama fix while waiting for Abbey’s second series.

And lastly, Things I’m Excited About:

So what are you pumped for this summer?

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“C’Mon Kids, Let’s Put On A Show:” Velvet Goldmine Redux

Last night (N.B. by “last night” I mean “this summer.” Because I have been a blogging super slacker the last few months. I am hoping that will change, but I make no promises. Also, given that I started writing this post back in July, it may have a little of the Kubla Khan disjointedness), at the request of a friend, I revisited one of my all-time favorite films, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine.  If you’ve known me long enough, we’ve probably watched this together at some point. I watched it so many times in high school, I wore out my VHS tape. When I say this movie changed my life, I’m not kidding—I encountered it first as an impressionable 14-year-old, and it subsequently impacted the way I dressed, my taste in music, the kind of guys I found attractive, the books I read. I hadn’t seen the film in a few years and I was curious to see if I would find it as compelling now that I’m older, wiser, and less inclined to cover my combat boots in glitter paint.

Velvet Goldmine tells the fictional rise and fall of ‘70s glam rocker Brian Slade (played by a stunningly fey Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Blatantly aping the structure of Citizen Kane, the film traces the career of Slade and his alter-ego, Maxwell Demon, via interviews with his first manager (Michael Feast) and ex-wife (Toni Collette). Christian Bale plays our intrepid reporter, Arthur, who reflects on his own place within the Glam Rock movement while digging through the sordid details of Slade’s climb to fame and high-profile affair with Iggy-Pop stand-in Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Velvet Goldmine is a giddy spectacle first and foremost, but those critics who wrote it off as vapid are missing the point of the film—which in my opinion, is about the power of creative energy.


We see Arthur as an adult, numb and unsmiling with the grey backdrop of ‘80s New York a purposefully stark contrast to the ‘70s psychedelic smorgasbord of color. As a closeted teen (in an offensively bad wig), Arthur is liberated by the exhibitionism of his musical idols. Take the scene of a Brian Slade press conference, where the singer vamps and minces for the reporters, and young Arthur watches rapt from his living room. When questioned about his sexuality,Slade proclaims “I should think that if people were to get the wrong impression of me…it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.” Arthur is transformed. “That’s me! That’s me, Dad!” he imagines shouting, before we cut to him silent, peeking glances at his stone-faced parents as they watch the interview.

For anyone who’s felt a little off-center, who suddenly found in their discovery of music someone whounderstood the core of who they were, and not only that, legitimized it, this scene should strike a chord. Like all rock music, glam was about giving the middle finger to the mainstream while simultaneously co-opting the best bits until counter-culture and plain-old-regular culture blended together. At the start of the film, Brian Slade is doing his best to fuck the establishment with copious gender-bending, but can’t get anyone to listen. Curt Wild shows him how it’s done (clip awesomely NSFW):

If I had to pick one reason for people to watch this movie, that scene would be it. I love the decadence and meticulous construction of Brian Slade’s world, but the raw power–pardon the pun–of McGregor’s performance single-handedly sets him up as the catalyst for everything that follows, and the link that will improbably connect Brian to Arthur.

I found it interesting, after I’m Not There came out, when critics finally started to bring Velvet Goldmine into conversations about Todd Haynes. It’s generally talked about as a test-run for the later film, and there are certainly similarities. I’m Not There is absolutely a more mature work, but I (clearly, given the length of this entry) think that VG shouldn’t be considered as a footnote in the director’s career. It’s rare that a movie is both genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking, one that conveys the feel of a specific point in time so precisely without turning into a dry period piece. I love showing this movie to people for the first time, because I always hope it will give them the same shot of pure pleasure that it does for me. I don’t think I can say any more to support my case: if at this point you still don’t want to check it out, well, nothing’s going to convince you. But if you’re intrigued, then I encourage you to watch it at maximum volume.

Rec Room: Beeswax

BeeswaxI’ve already sung the praises of Andrew Bujalski on this site, and I had the pleasure of seeing his third feature, Beeswax, at the BAM Cinemafest this past Sunday. Beeswax is nominally the story of twin sisters, Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher, respectively), and the broiling legal problems between Jeannie and her AWOL business partner, Amanda. The possibility of a lawsuit (Jeannie and Amanda own a vintage clothing store in Austin) puts Jeannie back in touch with her ex-boyfriend, Merrill (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky), while Lauren contemplates leaving the country in the face of perpetual unemployment. It should go without saying, they all  spend a lot of time worrying (and talking) about other people’s lives.

The fact that Jeannie is paraplegic is an unavoidable fact of the film, but it is by no means the point of the film: it just is. There is no slow reveal. One of the first shots of the film is Jeannie aptly maneuvering her way around the store where she works, and it’s refreshing that the story focuses so much on a group of people already familiar with one another, so that no explanation is awkwardly foisted upon the audience to explain her disability.

But Jeannie also has a sister, with the same face, able-bodied, and a similar hapless charm. Like Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha, not a lot happens in Beeswax, which is what makes the film such a pleasure to watch–all the almost happenings. There are moments of possible sexual tension between Merrill and Lauren, and yet it’s never more than a hint. We see much more of Jeannie than Amanda, but we see just enough of Amanda to understand that Jeannie isn’t necessarily the martyr of their situation. Bujalski works only with non-professional actors, improvising the majority of the script, and when he said at last night’s follow-up Q&A that his films “wouldn’t work with trained actors,” it made perfect sense. The connection between these actors (the sisters in particular) is impossible to replecate. To have cast two unrelated actresses as Jeannie and Lauren would be to make pale carbon copies of their fascinating bond. Perhaps because he shoots on film and edits his own work by hand, Bujalski’s work stands out as more sophisticated in both composition and style compared to similar directors like Jay Duplass or Joe Swanberg. It’s a near perfect mix of old-school filmmaking and micro-indie atmosphere–awkward, awkwardly funny, and all-too-real.

Beeswax opens at the Film Forum in New York on August 7. Blink, but be sure not to miss it.

WWMJD? (What Would Movie-Jesus Do?)

buddy_christ*Disclaimer: I write this as a staunch agnostic, having no personal attachment to Christianity whatsoever, and no intent to offend those who do.

Several years ago, as part of a course on censorship in books and film, I was supposed to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. I can’t remember if I was sick, or just ditched class that day, but I never got around to it until now. I remember being fascinated by the post-screening lecture, the extreme reaction that this film produced. Hardly suprising, given the subject matter.

I don’t mean the film’s conceit of Jesus living as an ordinary man, but any film that deigns to approach religion, or any dogmatic cultural practice, head-on. (Angels and Demons, Ron Howard’s follow up to the abysmal Da Vinci Code, is getting relatively little flack, it seems, because the movie has been almost universally reviewed as one of the dullest movies ever made about the Catholic Church, conspiracy theories, Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard notwithstanding.) But I digress (Get used to it).

Watching The Last Temptation, I kept thinking of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which I’d watched once out of perverse curiousity. The two movies chronicle many of the same events of Christ’s life–mainly, his final days in Jerusalem and his crucifixion at Golgotha. Gibson’s movie received its own truckload of flak and hype, but is generally embraced by Christian sects as a faithful account of Jesus’ torture and death (I would not say it is about the resurrection, as about ten seconds of the two-plus hour movie are dedicated to that miraculous event).

Now both movies have their flaws (hello, Peter Gabriel’s synth-tastic score and Harvey Keitel’s heinous red fro; so long, contents of my stomach, after watching Jesus being flayed with a glass-tipped cat-o’-nine-tails), but as a secular viewer, I find Temptation to be a much more interesting film than Passion.

Scorsese’s film is based on a fictional novel that posits: “What if Jesus had been spared, and lived to old age as an ordinary man, rather than the Son of God?” But what an interesting question that is–the theologists I find the most convincing are those who allow room for you to question the basic tenets of a given faith, to relate the stories to your own life, to consider the alternatives. In an extensive parsing of the film, Steven Graydanus argues that the film is blasphemous because it is impossible to portray Christ as an ordinary man while simultaneously recognizing and revering his divine nature.

But both movies were made by religious men, and in my mind, Gibson’s gore-fest passion play doesn’t do nearly as good a job at communicating Jesus’ sacrifice as Temptation does. The Passion of the Christ depicts, in excruciating detail, the exact horrors inflicted upon him, but it is all but impossible while watching the film to move from disgust to appreciation of the divine. Jesus is tempted several times over in The Bible, and even questions God in the moment before his death–to give this larger-than-life figure free will and the chance at a normal life humanizes him more than any other depiction I’ve seen–and still the final message is that choosing this life is to betray a greater purpose:

“Blasphemy” is a tricky word, entirely subjective–and I object on principle to artistic repression of any kind. But if censorship gives us anything, it’s an encyclopedia of some of the most interesting works conceived by the human mind. So thanks, Patriarchy, for making my “To Read/Watch/View” list that much easier!

I could write a whole separate post on the depiction of the devil as female in both films, but I’m a bit Jesused-out at the moment. And my guess is, so are you.

Rec Room: Phenomena

I find that there are two schools of thought re: Dario Argento’s films: they’re gratuitous, badly-acted crap, or they’re gratuitous, badly-acted brilliance. But even his admirers are ready to admit the man’s movies are uneven at best. Suspiria irrefutably falls into the latter category, containing all his best trademarks (creatively low-budget yet effective gore, striking cinematography, truly insane plot lines involving supernatural forces–in this case, a hideous, dying witch).

However, the jury’s out on Phenomena.

Pros

  • Pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly, who clearly never went through an awkward stage, the bitch.
  • A knife-wielding chimpanzee.
  • Some truly creepy imagery, including a shot of someone being stabbed through the back of their head with the blade protruding from the victim’s screaming mouth, and a last-act villain who could not be more disgusting if Dario had fashioned him out of an embalmed horse fetus.  The Saw Franchise clearly took a page from Argento’s book.

Cons

  • Really, really bad acting. Connelly is decent, but only by comparison.
  • Really, really obtrusive music by the likes of Iron Maiden and Motörhead.
  • Lots and Lots of bugs. Eeeek!
  • A knife-wielding chimpanzee.

Recommend if: you’re in the mood to make fun of an alternately cheesy but truly freakish horror-flick. A glass of wine (or three) adds to the experience.
Stay away if: you’ve never seen Argento’s work before. Start with Suspiria, then go from there.