Monday, March 31, 2008

Short Films You Must See: Chris Marker and Walerian Borowczyk's "Les Astronautes"

*The film is in two parts accounting for the two videos...part one is on top, followed by part two. All one short film though!*

Continue reading...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Operation: Tom Cruise, #1

We're not gonna start getting all about self promotion here, but I made this little video today and thought I would post it for the enjoyment of everyone. We may keep this gag going for a while so keep looking on YouTube for some more...

Sorry about this size on this being so small. Making videos of my own is still in development. It'll get bigger next time...hopefully.


Continue reading...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Who's Afraid of the Iraq War?

At a time when the Iraq War films are struggling to get audiences, Kimberly Peirce’s new film Stop-Loss probably doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell either, and will most likely disappear into oblivion, only to be kept company by its predecessors. Sadly enough, Stop-Loss stands out in its awareness of the war film genre, and particularly draws on influences from the Vietnam War film; yet where many Vietnam War films are poignant and provocative, Peirce’s approach to the Iraq War is vague and indecisive, making the film monumentally unmonumental.

In the late 1970’s, films about the Vietnam War slowly started to emerge, with plenty more coming in the 80’s and beyond when the war was out of sight and (somewhat) out of mind. During the war, photo-journalists reporting from Vietnam had supplied the world with images never to be forgotten - so many, so haunting, so horrifying - leaving nothing to the imagination, and consequently contributed greatly to the political discourse concerning the war, nurturing the dissatisfaction and numerous war protests all over the world. As a result, Hollywood studios considered the Vietnam War to be a poor choice for film material, simply because the war had already been so over-exposed. Surprisingly then, when films such as The Deer Hunter (Cimino, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Stone, 1986), and Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987) were released, many films were well received and relatively popular amongst audiences and critics. Since then, many of them have made a place for themselves in the film canon. Amongst the things these films have in common, is a confrontational, scrutinizing and dialectical approach to the war they are portraying, and its effects on the soldiers, veterans and landscape in the aftermath.

Today, the situation, at least to me, seems exactly the opposite. Images distributed from Iraq are scarce, when compared to the abundance of images we are left with from the Vietnam War, and the news desks are obeying censorship to a large degree. The camera lenses seem to be interested in capturing and depicting secondary events of the war, and wish to spare us from seeing the actual cruelties and costs of war. Instead, we are shown photos of successful raids, scenes where bombs have gone of after the fact, i.e. devoid of people but full of dust and piles of bricks, making it hard to get a real sense of what is really happening. There are the occasional provocative photos, often taken by the soldiers themselves, depicting aspects of the war we don’t usually see or know about. Had it not been for the widespread use of cameras amongst the soldiers in Iraq and their distribution online, many of these larger atrocities would never have come to light. The Iraq War is in this sense a completely different war - visually - from that in Vietnam, as it remains largely invisible and hidden from us and is often drowned in ambiguous political discourse, such as renaming the war as merely a conflict.

Different from the Vietnam War, however, is the making of films about the Iraq War while it is taking place; however, this time, it seems like no one really wants to see them. Two of the more prominent “war films" from last year, Redacted (DePalma) and In the Valley of Elah (Haggis), came from important/popular directors, but both did quite poorly at the box office. While the quality of the films is arguable, audience interest seems curiously lacking, and the same appears to be happening for Stop-Loss. Kimberly Peirce is an important and fearless director in that she once again approaches what is considered very difficult and sensitive subject-matters, making Stop-Loss nearly ten years after her powerful début film Boys Don’t Cry (1999). The world Peirce depicts in Stop-Loss is as rough and tough as in Boys Don’t Cry. The milieus her characters inhabit are so similar, in fact, that the characters in the different films could probably live across the street from one another. Unfortunately the parallels and similarities between the two films end here.

Peirce is fully aware of the widespread use of digital cameras by the soldiers in Iraq, and starts her film in this home-video mode, portraying a group of soldiers at their base. This opening is both effective and promising concerning its style and storytelling technique, and the behind-the-scenes-look of the Iraq war is immediately captivating. After these first glimpses, the film continues into its battle scenes that are well-made, and congruent in staying with the exhilarating insider point of view we get in the opening. Unfortunately, the film leaves this format quickly as the scenery shifts from Iraq to the US, and moves into a more “traditional” style and use of camera, placing the spectator firmly outside of the diegesis, This decision is disappointing in that the audience is quickly and effectively supplanted deep within the war, then all too quickly taken right back out. The effects created by the home-video style are remarkable in that they place the spectator visually and virtually within the war that is rarely seen in such a insider way. If this affect could have been sustained, Stop-Loss would have been infinitely more successful.

The story of Stop-Loss is reminiscent of that of The Deer Hunter, with the trio of friends returning from war back to their small town, all of them mentally or physically ill to some degree. And as an echo of The Deer Hunter, Brandon (Ryan Philippe) in Stop-Loss finds consolation and help in his best friend Steve’s (Channing Tatum) girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish). However, both the psychological and political aspects of The Deer Hunter, that makes it such a great film (along with its outstanding acting) is unfortunately not repeated in Stop-Loss. One of the reasons the film doesn’t work nearly as well is its reluctance to deal with the Iraq War in any real or critical sense. Of course, Stop-Loss deals with the hopeless and tragic situation that so many soldiers fighting in Iraq are trapped in, which is openly portrayed as a negative factor, and is main battle of Brandon. However, that Brandon doesn’t want to go back to Iraq is in itself not that interesting after the first ten minutes, as there is no real change in him, which cannot be blamed on the rather straightforward performance by Ryan Philippe but the script. Abbie Cornish has been given equally little to work with, as she is the girl who unquestioningly supports the troops, but is afraid of ending up as a war widow.

Since the characters continue to be so patriotic and so afraid of self-examination in their own motivations of going to war in the first place, or even why the war is fought, Stop-Loss never challenges its characters or its audience. Not to say that Stop-Loss needs to convey one specific message or take sides, but it needs to deal with the problems and questions that implicitly exists in its subject-matter if it is to be successful. It is unfortunate that the film instead seems to be saying that if Brandon had been asked nicely, he would definitely have gone back to Iraq one more time, and that he only objects to the bad treatment he feels he is given by the military. Instead, the war is depicted as inevitable and non-questionable, making Stop-Loss just as diffuse in its answers as the current administration when confronted with questions and problems concerning the Iraq War.

by Maria Fosheim Lund
Continue reading...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lee Let Go

Apparently I am a day late on getting this news, but it is nonetheless shocking and mindnumbing. One, if not my favorite critic out there, Nathan Lee, has been let go by the Village Voice, effective immediately. Jim Emerson, over at Scanners, has a great piece (as always) in regards to Lee and the state of the movie critic that can be found here.

Lee's rhetorical flare and love of film always inspired me as a writer. In a time when bloggy writing (that we at least attempt to mostly get above here) is becoming preeminent, Lee was always able to give his distinct opinions with plenty of "bloggy" personality, but with all the in depth formal insights that so many writers fail to come close to. Lee's redundancy is an absolute travesty, and is another sad display in the dwindling state of film criticism.

by James Hansen
Continue reading...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Not Funny Enough, Zombie Man

With his most recent zombie flick installment, Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero has come incredibly close to diving headfirst into straight-up comedy. Sadly, he didn’t quite get to the bottom of the sea of hilarity. Although Diary features ample self-reflexive parody and general genre spoofing, as well as a crazy badass deaf Amish guy whose role in the film I will save for the reader to discover, the film is hampered by its momentary lapses into nearly unendurable pretension and ill-conceived social commentary, which is quite unusual for the typically sharp Romero.

Diary’s set-up echoes that of this year’s Cloverfield: a group of twentysomethings (this time film students initially making a student film) become hounded by an individual amongst them, Jason (Joshua Close) who is hell-bent on recording the end of the world as it happens. As revealed in the film’s introductory voice-over, Jason has died and his surviving girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), has finished his documentary of the earth’s zombiefication, entitled The Death of Death, which she then plays for the audience, making super-serious pseudo-philosophical commentary throughout the film, clashing with the film’s generally consistent parodic sensibility.

During Romero’s introduction to Diary of the Dead before a special midnight screening at Nashville’s treasured Belcourt Theatre, which I attended gleefully, Romero maintained the comic tone that dominates much of the film amidst his humble sincerity. Romero noted that, contrary to Land of the Dead (2005), Diary is “a film from the heart” in which he tried to discover whether or not he had the “chops and stamina to do a little film again” and the legendary writer-director repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the enthusiasm Diary has been received with, noting that he would have made the film “even if it went straight to DVD.” When Romero began fielding questions from the audience, shit got hysterical.

One audience member stood up, gesturing toward his amputated arm and asked if he could be an extra in Romero’s next film since it would be easy to special effect an arm-ripping scene with him. Everyone got a good chuckle out of the unexpected humor proposed by the man, who laughed quite a bit himself, particularly when Romero retorted “I’ve shot my last few films in Canada and zombies in Canada are unionized,” referring to the regulations on extras, and expressing regret that the “$1 and a cheeseburger” policy of paying extras isn’t practical any longer.

The conversation then shifted to talk of Romero’s childhood fears, leading him to comment, “I was frightened that when I died, Jesus was going to kick my ass,” adding, “He was the first zombie, actually,” prompting a roar of laughter from the crowd. The raucous humor was further enlivened when a few audience members shouted, “Then, why do we eat his flesh?” and “Why do we drink his blood?” Romero, smiling from ear to ear, then declared, “This guy’s spun this thing right on its head!”

Following Romero’s standing ovation as he left the stage, the film began – starting its oft-hilarious journey toward the demystification of the media and of cinema, via a zombie apocalypse. Diary employs many of the well-worn tactics of cinematic derangment, a la Jean-Luc Godard and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). The film’s opening shot begins with a new cameraman onto his camera – from the camera’s perspective – immediately forcing the audience to realize that it is watching through the first-person eye of a camera, which it will throughout the film. In addition to its constant references to the presence of the camera, including a detailed description of the camera used to shoot the film-within-a-film, The Death of Death (and presumably the actual film), much like the description read aloud during the credits of Godard’s Contempt (1963). The film’s use of absurdly bombastic and stereotypical music also echoes Contempt’s melodramatic and overly-sensuous score and is well-manipulated by Romero. Another tool of inciting awareness of the film’s fictionality in the audience borrowed from Godard, is the jump-cut, which in Diary has become what may be called the “glitch-cut,” in which the first person camera gets scrambled, thrown, or turned off, for dramatic or comedic effect.

Romero’s most audacious move is his revelation of the film’s editing process, as is masterfully depicted in Vertov’s aforementioned silent masterpiece. In one scene during which the group has a chance to rest at the compound of an African-American militarist group, Jason basically sprints to a computer in order to edit and upload some of the footage he has shot to Youtube. He is shown picking his shots and dropping them in their slots, basically creating the film the audience has been watching. Exciting because of its deconstruction of the cinematic product, the scene epitomizes Romero’s goal of attacking the media and stripping it of its power. But is it really necessary in the Youtube age? Romero seems to think so, and he iterates this with obnoxious emphasis.

Before attacking Diary’s irritating moments of seriousness, due must be given to its lightness. When the audience first meets the film’s group of protagonists, they are filming a low-budget horror film about a mummy. Referencing and mocking Romero’s penchant for social commentary, as is displayed in his milestones Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), one of the students sardonically comments that the The Death of Death should have “an underlying thread of social satire.” Additionally, Romero inserts humorous statements on zombie movement, as one of the characters comments to the actor playing the mummy that he can’t run after the girl, claiming, “You’re a corpse; if you run fast, your ankles will snap off.” The parallel scene near the film’s finale of the first filming scene is exceedingly
comical (but shan’t be detailed for the sake of preserving the plot!) and the sequence featuring the deaf Amish guy is one of the most knee-slap-inducing bits of cinema I’ve seen in a long time. Watching Diary of the Dead, I kept wishing that Romero would just make a straight-up comedy. I have a feeling it would be marvelous.

When Romero did stray from his comic tone, eyes rolled all over the theatre. Although Diary does maneuver through some racial and gender commentary during the scenes involving the militarist group, as well as tackling the downside of isolation during the film’s finale, when dealing with the role of the camera in society, the film becomes quite hamfisted. Repeatedly, like an ideological bludgeon, the concept of the camera as a weapon (zing!) is bashed into the head of the viewer, such as when a frustrated Debra turns the camera on Jason and asks, “You see how it feels?” The exploitative possibilities of the camera are underlined fifteen times by Romero, particularly during a scene where the group must battle zombies in a hospital and Jason is told, “Don’t try to speak, just shoot,” leading him to point his camera with precision, rather than use the gun that is the intended object of the command. After the students’ cynical professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) blows some zombies away, he gives the gun to someone else, explaining, “It’s too easy to use.” Almost immediately afterward, Debra hands the camera back to Jason, also explaining, “It’s too easy to use.”

This is how I imagine the thought process behind the scene: “Get it? It’s like a metaphor and shit. ‘Shoot,’ do you get it? Lemme make sure you get it. Hmmm. I’ll just use the same damned metaphor over and over and milk it to the point that you want to vomit. Then you’ll definitely get it, and you’ll think I’m edgy and clever. Fuck subtlety. I’ll just punch you in the stomach. You’ll be amazed!” Sadly, Romero does just that, harping on the violence-of-the-camera issue with the tact of a 13-year-old. It’s a tragic day when I have to call George A. Romero “didactic,” but he is that, if nothing else, during the disgustingly clunky portions of Diary.

On the whole, Diary is watchable, but definitely not as rewatchable as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. It seems Romero might still be getting his groove back after returning to the zombie genre, but hopefully he will be able to attain the perfection of Dawn once more, striking a balance between horror, comedy, and social satire. Maybe he’ll tie his heavy hands a little better next time.

by Brandon Colvin

***Photos of George Romero were taken by Jackie Clarkson***

Continue reading...

Out 1 Feedback Poll

Hello to everyone out there! I am sure you all noticed the new polls that are up right now, but I want to especially encourage all regular visitors to the site (and everyone else) to weigh in on the grading system poll. As we continue to bring you the best analysis possible, we have to consider the best way to deliver it, and part of that is the framework of a ratings system. While many critics use grades or stars to label their feelings alongside their reviews, there is another side that just wants have their pieces and not limit films to a grading scale. Although the opinions of the writers here at Out 1 may differ on the issue, we are set to deliver what all of you want (although we certainly hope you are reading the pieces and not just looking at grades...they take a long time to write!) So I urge you all to PLEASE vote in the poll and let us know whether you like the use of grades or not. Your feedback and support is what will continue to make Out 1 one of the best film sites out there. Help us out by letting us know what you like, and be sure and keep telling your friends!

Thanks so much to everyone for keeping the site going strong!


PS- If you want to have a discussion on the issue, please use the comments section. Any kind of discourse on the subject will really help us out.

Continue reading...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Film of the Century

Although some will disagree, perhaps with vehemence, I feel secure in stating that Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is the best film that has been produced in the 21st Century thus far. Van Sant’s astounding work is a study of textures and juxtaposition – a post-modern masterpiece that combines elements of my favorite filmmaking styles: the amateur acting and elegant precision of Robert Bresson, the melancholy fluidity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s existentially inquisitive camera, and the curious experimentation with image and sound that gave the New American Cinema movement a reinvigorated sense of the possibilities of cinema in the 1950s and 60s. In Paranoid Park, Van Sant, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, has crafted a film after my own cinematic heart.

Based on a novel of the same name by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park follows Alex (brilliantly played by the non-professional actor Gabe Nevins), a wannabe skater punk as he juggles his parents divorce, losing his virginity, trying to fit in, and, most importantly, his manslaughtering of a security guard at a train yard. As the police investigation of the murder begins to target the skater community of “throwaway kids” after a skateboard is found in a river, covered with incriminating evidence, Alex’s guilt and anxiety begin to take over his every thought and his life begins to spiral into a state of moral confusion and fear that seems as gray as the ominous cloud that blankets the autumnal Oregon sky in the film’s opening shot.

From the aforementioned introductory shot of a Portland bridge being bared upon by the menacing weather, and throughout the entire film, Paranoid Park’s exploration of textural dialectics is in full force. The initial shot is in accelerated motion, cars zooming by on the bridge like smudges of light, and a selection from Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) bops along with a levity that seems to mock the heaviness of the daunting cloud formation. Van Sant throws the somber image against the chipper tunes to elicit a mood that is immediately startling and confusing – and then he never stops experimenting with the unique tones achievable through such unusual juxtapositions.

The following shot finds Alex writing in a journal, in normal motion, the intimate sound of his pencil scratching along a page replacing the bright levity of Rota’s composition. After a short shot of Alex in a field, the film shifts to gorgeously fuzzy 8MM slow-motion footage of skateboarders gracefully sliding over the rounded concrete hills of the film’s titular skatepark, as ethereal French electronic music haunts the scene. After the ballet-like motion of the skating scenes comes an 8MM handheld tracking shot that quickly pushes in on Alex as he walks through a field, followed by a Tarkovskyesque smooth tracking shot from just behind Alex as he continues to walk, capping a truly astounding sequence of perfectly woven, yet disparate, sensual experiences.

The experimentation with complimentary and contradictory visual and sonic textures in Paranoid Park is incredibly fresh, and is no doubt as much a result of the presence of Wong Kar Wai’s (former) ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose experiments with visual mutation and extremity made films like Chunking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997) unforgettable, as it is of Van Sant’s innovative direction. Thematically, the varying textures reflect the malleable nature of teenage personality and the warring facets that define one’s identity during highly developmental periods in life – such as just after one has killed another person, lost his virginity, and experienced the beginning of his parents’ divorce. Alex is in quite a bit of turmoil (to say the least), and therefore, the film’s visual and aural characteristics are as well, approaching an almost Impressionistic mode of film practice.

Van Sant’s history as a student of avant-garde film at RISD, particularly Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, no doubt informs his use of slow-motion, focal manipulation, and mercurial shifts in lighting, even within a single shot – all of which enliven Paranoid Park with a pulsing courage. But equally as important as the influence of the avant-garde on Van Sant’s textural probing, is the influence of Robert Bresson on Van Sant’s use of amateur actors and his elliptical narrative structure – although its non-linearity certainly doesn’t come from Bresson. Paranoid Park carries a brand of Bressonian “realism” that results from Van Sant’s use of non-trained actors and his carefully elliptical and non-theatrical construction. Bresson’s presence is also felt in the film’s use of Alex as an awkwardly inflected narrator as he reads from journals, as is the case of the amateur leads in two of Bresson’s masterpieces: Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Pickpocket (1959). It’s so relieving to see a filmmaker pursuing the same ends as Bresson, whose style is the most unsuccessfully explored of any of the classic masters.

Even beyond its formal brilliance, Paranoid Park is an immensely powerful film on an emotional and spiritual level. The film’s concerns are essentially existential, as expressed by Alex when he says to his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), obliquely describing his experience with the death of the security guard, “I just feel like there’s something outside of normal life . . . There’s like different levels of stuff, and something happened to me.” The film’s poetic visual indulgence certainly establishes and accentuates the transcendental tone of its content, ingraining the film’s powerful, ineffable mood into that place that’s deeper than memory. I personally haven’t been able to get it out of my head, or my hands, or my lungs – it’s a very involving and absorbing film. I can’t quite describe how incredible Paranoid Park is, whether because of my inability as a writer or as a result of the film’s inexplicable power. The film can only speak for itself and every review I’ve read doesn’t quite do the film justice, so here's my conclusion: fuck writing and reading about it, JUST GO SEE IT.

by Brandon Colvin

Continue reading...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Heaven?

Given its experimentations and underground mode of production, Frownland is a film that is ripe for either high praise or revolting rejection. However, its sporadic, fragmented, hyper-realist style countered with its incredibly assured, somehow comedic, vision of an out of control world which leads to a stunning cumulative effect makes Frownland a very complex film that is not so easy to accept or reject. The world Frownland creates is one of entrapment of the highest degree on both the characters within the film and the filmic audience. There is no way to ease through the hell that the characters inhabit and that the audience is supplanted deep within. This is the conundrum that Frownland and its director, Ronald Bronstein, create for itself. It may be an inspired vision of forced isolation, but it dwells in a space that neither the characters nor the audience want to be a part of.

Frownland features snippets from the life of Keith (Dore Mann), a door to door coupon salesman, who either has to have some form of mental illness or severe social anxiety leading to his constant stuttering and forehead scratching. His difficult life is the thread that keeps the film in tact, despite its seemingly aimless narrative attitude. Keith encounters people who he clearly has connection to, but it seems a stretch to call any of them his "friend." There is a depressed, suicidal girl named Sandy (presumably Keith's girlfriend) who Keith rushes to cheer up when he is called. Keith has such a hard time expressing his feelings to her that he forces his eyelids open so they well up with tears. This reaction and response may be a comic break from the film's relentlessness, but it displays Keith's inability to show real emotion. As much as he
may want to, forcing emotion is the only way Keith can show much of anything to a member of the opposite sex. His speech patterns tell his inner story of struggling to find the right thing to say and do, whether it be with Sandy, fighting with his starving-musician asshole roomate, or encountering his unfair boss.

All of this is anchored by Dore Mann's razor sharp, fully embodied performance as Keith. Frownland is essentially a one man show, save one completely unnecessary scene where Keith's roomate takes a test to become and LSAT tutor. These heavily scripted scenes are overwhelmingly overwritten put next to Keith's incomprehensible, seemingly improvisation, and completely convincing mutterings. This improvisational flow that Frownland builds is trampled by the moments of ineptness within the screenplay, most of which are in the long, test taking scene. These missteps are few and far between although there are enough of them to keep Frownland from being as convincing. Nevertheless, it is in Mann's portrait of Keith that gives Frownland an immediate and mesmerizing jolt. The performance signals Frownland's wish to be a monster movie. It is up for us to decide who, or what, that monster is.

Director Ronald Bronstein is a New York City projectionist who is self distributing Frownland, which has already completed its New York run. The self distribution may make Frownland a difficult film to see, but given its many positive reviews from major news sources, it would be surprising if it does not make it around the country on some limited scale. Bronstein and Mann have created a diegetic world in Frownland that few will want to enter. This is certainly a major factor in making the film a difficult, if not impossible, box office sell. Keith, and the audience, are forced into an all too real world that everyone is unwillingly cemented within. What is most impressive about Frownland that leads to its finality is Bronstein's keen cinematic mind. No matter what attempts are made, there is no escape from the cruel world Frownland displays until the end credits.

by James Hansen
Frownland [trailer]

Continue reading...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Short Films You Must See: Guy Maddin's "The Heart of the World"

I don't know if this will become a regular series here or not, but it seems to me (and likely everyone else who has ever made them) that short films go wildly under appreciated. This is a feature to highlight some great short films that would certainly be part of the short films canon, if there were one. (Is there? Debate in comments...)

So here is the first selection. We'll let the films speak for themselves.
Continue reading...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Forgotten VHS #8- Abel Gance's "Napoleon"

Not only is Abel Gance’s 1927 historical epic, Napoleon, a forgotten VHS – it may very well be the most unjustly forgotten film in the history of cinema. The hallucinatory masterpiece is the pinnacle of French Impressionism and is certainly Gance’s magnum opus. Using a dazzling array of inventive visual techniques, Napoleon anticipates the work of the cinematic surrealists and the American Avant-Garde of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, all while maintaining an involving and clear narrative.

Gance’s visual innovation in Napoleon is astonishing. The writer, director, and editor combines lightning fast editing (predating Brakhage by many years), beautifully orchestrated montage sequences (yep, better than Eisenstein), jarringly effective superimpositions (at one point there
are 40 in a single shot), multiple aspect ratios (including 4:1, having three cameras shoot footage side-by-side with the intention of having the three film reels projected on three screens), split screens (by having discontinuous shots juxtaposed in the three screen format), and beautiful tinting (particularly during the film’s final scenes where the three screens are split and tinted to appear in the pattern of the French flag). In addition to these impressive aspects, the film features breathtaking camera work, including brilliant use of tracking shots, handheld shots, and once scene where the camera is attached to a swing and looms back and forth over a crowd.

Napoleon is an incredible film, but it is noticeably absent from the Sight & Sound polls and many canonical lists, even though it blows most films completely out of the water. Most appallingly, Gance’s genius film is absent in the DVD format. Hopefully, once the film is given a proper DVD treatment (please, Criterion, please!), it will be rediscovered and given its proper due. Currently, the film can be acquired on VHS for around $40 from Amazon Marketplace. It may seem pricey, but trust me, it’s worth it – unless you want to wait around for Turner Classic Movies to show it again.

by Brandon Colvin

Continue reading...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Great Period...period.

Admittedly, the spell that Jacques Rivette casts in the course of his best films is one I am constantly under. Sometimes meandering, constantly conspiratorial and infinitely obsessive, Rivette is one of the directors that I am most obsessed with having flown to New York to see his 13-hour masterpiece Out 1 after having seen only of his films (Celine and Julie Go Boating, for the record). Rivette’s early films have a manic sense of style, story and improvisation that go to the extreme end of the French New Wave making Rivette, in my mind, even more iconic if equally inaccessible. To call Rivette’s latest film, The Duchess of Langeais, a change of pace from the previous Rivette films I have seen is an understatement. All the same, this playful period piece exudes the sprightliness of of a teenage sex comedy while foregrounding the tonal differentiation in character that leads The Duchess of Langeais to its unexpected clarity and profundity.

Adapted from a novella by Balzac (one of Rivette’s obsessions that has equal prominence within the “narrative” of Out 1), The Duchess of Langeais follows the romantic entanglement between Marquis de Montriveau, a war hero who has recently returned to Paris from Africa, and the Duchess of Langeais, a vicious coquette who is not afraid to gamble to see how far love will go. Starting in a Spanish monastery where the Marquis has found his lovely “Antoinette” (posing as Sister Theresa), the Marquis forces a confrontation that the other Sisters find none to pleasant, literally pulling a curtain between the Marquis and the Duchess, and providing one hell of an act break for the filmic audience.

Flashing back 5 years, the elongated courtship of the Duchess is followed in great detail, highlighted by Rivette’s use of intertitles of text from the novella. Although it is easy to jump at the literariness of the intertitles, Rivette and the character’s mode of communicating allows the film to gloss over the intertitles without breaking up the film’s drama. In using this disjunctive sense of time, Rivette’s adaptation makes time something that may be a factor, but is ineffective in stopping the fates of the characters. When the Marquis vows that the Duchess will be his mistress, neither he, nor the film, take into consideration the amount of time this may take, especially without understanding how strong the mind games of the Duchess are. Is this just a playful attitude on her part? Is there something more vicious behind it? And maybe more importantly, does the Duchess really care?

Rivette’s narrative, of course, complicates matters to the nth degree making The Duchess of Langeais on the brink of the theatric at all moments. Not theatric in the sense of melodramatic, although it certainly is that, but theatric in the sense that this could be theater. Rivette continually miffs the line between theater and film plus the real and the unreal throughout his features. Though these obsessions are a constant in Rivette’s work, they never feel rehashed or tired in The Duchess of Langeais. Rivette’s ability to keep material fresh and alive no matter the datedness of the material (whether it be a period costume drama, an 1818 novella, or his obsessions) is an incredibly remarkable quality that many may overlook. However, when a 135 minute (long in general, short for Rivette) period piece can feel this fresh and (hey!) fun, there is really some feat behind the scenes that must be recognized.

At the same time, even more compelling is the film’s ability to sway from the typical theatrical melodrama into Rivette’s full on conspiratorial assault. Without giving away too much of the darkly comedic drama in the second half of the film, when the major shifts in story occur, there is never a sense of confusion or displacement. This not only signals that this may be Rivette’s most traditional work, but that the subtle intricacies of the story all lead to its most dramatic, and tragic, moments. Beyond splurging all credit on Rivette, the performances by Guillaume Depardieu (as the Marquis) and Jeanne Balibar (as the Duchess) are beyond phenomenal. Given Rivette’s highly improvisation style, Depardieu and Balibar match a level of intensity in their battles with the other even with the enormous differences in wit, presentation, and mood. Depardieu is at times a weak man crippled by love, but can quickly become a thundering herd that will not be denied. Depardieu is crippled in real life, having lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, but that weakness becomes a forceful attribute of the Marquis. Balibar matches this with a constant face of innocence, while not shying away from her inner devil when the time is right. The scheming, devilish tactic all lead to a surprising, if inevitable, conclusion that is executed with a stylishly calm grace, perfectly fitting given the film’s other unexpected variations.

More appropriately titled Don’t Touch The Axe (its literal title from Balzac, and also the film’s name in every other country but the United States), The Duchess of Langeais seems too formal a title put in place to sway older viewers into seeing another film about royalty of some sort. However, if this is the only major misstep for the film and its release, so be it. The Duchess of Langeais is as much a tease of a movie as the title is. Rivette, at age 80, has made a uniquely complex period dramedy that, if it does not transcend it, certainly is a play on a genre that the younger readers may not be drawn to. Do not let yourself be fooled. In the midst of what has been a winter film drought, The Duchess of Langeais is a intricate, timeless, beautiful poem.

by James Hansen
Continue reading...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

EMPHASIS ON THE CLOSE UP: Reygadas' Diegetics

Abundant with striking provocation, Carlos Reygadas’ 2005 film Battle In Heaven has numerous close ups that work on varying levels that could be theorized, but none is more striking, and highly debatable, than a close up that appears in the first scene of the film. Starting with a close up the face of Marcos, a large, older man, the camera tracks down his naked body where Ana, a young woman, is performing felatio on him. The camera continues to track around their bodies, and slowly moves on Ana's eyes as she is performing this sexual act. Or is she?

Mary Ann Doane’s artice “The Close Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema” calls into question the existence of space within the world of the close up and how the close up works within the diegetics of the film. Doane explains, “the space of the narrative, the diegesis, is constructed by a multiplicity of shots that vary in terms of both size and angle- hence this space exists nowhere; there is no totality of which the close up could be a part.” (Doane, 108) While this explanation comes from Balazs, Doane goes on to break down narrative spacialization into diegesis (the space of the narrative) and the space of the spectator. Doane argues, against Balazs, that the close up will always constitute a detail or a part, but admits that in the space of the spectator “the close up will, even if only momentarily, constitute itself as the totality, the only entity there to be seen.” (Doane, 108) It is in the opening close up of Ana’s eyes in Battle In Heaven that these two worlds that Doane analyzes come into collision.

There becomes diegetic confusion when Ana opens her eyes and stares into the camera and sheds a tear. In taking away the temporality of what Ana is doing and where she is, the look that Ana gives in close up becomes an implication to the audience and becomes totally isolated from the sexual act that is initially displayed. The image of her eyes has become the totality for the audience, but the same transference happens within the diegesis of the film. Although without spatio-temporality it is impossible to say what the rest of Ana’s body is actively engaged in, the previous shots seen of her performing felatio have her eyes shut tight. It is only when the camera is focusing on her that she is able to break from the diegesis and enter a no man’s land where diegetics no longer exist. She is alone in the world and is the totality of the cinematic moment. The isolation of her within the frame grants her a breaking from the diegetic world of the film and, literally, opens her eyes into the spectatorial cinematic space where Ana is now having a direct confrontation with the audience.

This diegetic battle posed in Battle In Heaven signals a new kind of diegetic autonomy that can be taken out of Balazs and Doane. The space between diegesis and spectatorial space is problematized in this close up. The diegetic autonomy is taken away in limiting to frame to only the eye’s of Ana, however, it opens up a new kind of spectatorial diegesis where the character is able to interact with the spectator outside of diegetics. More than just a simple breaking of the fourth wall, as could be suggested, there is something more radical at work in Reygadas’ film. When Ana looks into the camera and sheds two tears, it is certainly some kind of break, but there is no self reflexive recognition in this cinematic isolation. Without any kind of recognition, yet with the moment being so thoroughly non-diegetic in terms of the narrative, there is a certainly a new kind of cinematic space that is yet to be theorized by Doane. Battle In Heaven is able to take a diegetic moment, remove the diegetic autonomy of the narrative, but maintain some sort of diegesis within the realm of the spectator. This radical space may not be completely new to cinema, but is something that needs to examined further in understanding the diegetics (and radical make up) of the close up.

by James Hansen
Continue reading...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Atmosphere" and "Isolation"

Music video director and photographer Anton Corbijn’s feature film directorial debut, Control, is a pleasure to me both as a film critic and an avid Joy Division fan. Based on the autobiography, “Touching From a Distance” (1995), by troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ wife, Deborah, Control is a measured, disciplined biopic of Ian’s stunning rise and subsequent downward spiral, which eventually led to his suicide in 1980, at the tragic age of 23, ending Joy Division’s meteoric leap to fame after only two albums and a handful of singles. Resisting the temptation to glorify or romanticize Curtis as an artistic figure, Corbijn’s film maintains a sober tone in depicting Curtis’ physical and emotional struggles, including his debilitating epilepsy, his dissolving marriage and failing fatherhood, his anxiety about the band’s popularity, and his increasingly self-conscious and paranoid attitude – all of which contributed to his shocking demise at the height of his musical career.

Control's strength germinates from the incredible performance of its lead actor, Sam Riley, who plays Ian Curtis with a perfect blend of rambunctious energy and dour subtlety. The spitting image of the late singer, Riley carries the film with his soulful and spot-on representations of Curtis’ facial expressions, gestures, and, dance moves, injecting his performance with a vigor that enables him to transcend the confines of mere imitation that usually cripples biopics, including Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005). Riley is saved quite a bit of potential embarrassment by first-time feature writer Matt Greenhalgh’s tasteful and sparse script. Control never indulges in the “look at so-and-so’s genius” scenes or the
cheesy “that’s how they wrote the song” recreations. Greenhalgh’s screenplay is wisely elliptical skipping over many cliché elements and leaving only the necessary and truly essential aspects of songwriting and performing on screen – those that further character development and contribute to propelling the narrative forward.

Not only does the film’s perfectly selective script eliminate trite sequences, it also reflects the psychological and mental perspective of the strained and encumbered Curtis. The film lacks the romantic glamour of standard rock ‘n’ roll films because, to Curtis, the trappings of fame and excess were overlooked due to the tremendous about of pressure he felt weighing down upon himself constantly. His heart and soul were constantly elsewhere, detached, leading Curtis to comment in the film that he often felt as if someone else were inhabiting his skin and merely acting as if they were him. The film’s choice to, like Curtis, attach itself to the grungier, more negative facets of life links it to the “kitchen-sink realism” of classic British films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963), establishing an apt connection between the film’s Manchester setting and harsh thematic content, and the film’s inherited British formal design.

Although Riley’s performance is certainly the core of the film, nearly all of Control’s characters are adequately fleshed-out and rounded, including Ian’s band mates, Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway), Ian’s Belgian mistress, Annik (Alexandra Marie Lara), and Joy Division’s manager, Rob Gretton (Tony Kebbell), who provides refreshing comedic relief. The cast churns out solid performances across the board, except for the one-note, tearfest that is Deborah Curtis (Samantha Morton). Although the film tries to paint Deborah as a complex, tragic heroine, probably as a result of Deborah’s writing of the source material, her character is ultimately a boring, simple, and monotonous tragic heroine, probably also a result of Deborah’s writing of the source material. Deborah’s character has a singular motivation (loving Ian) and a constant sense of moral certitude (must love Ian), which makes her out to be quite mono-faceted and disjointed from the other characters in the film. Whether this comes from Deborah’s inability to view herself from an outside perspective when writing “Touching From a Distance,” or whether she is really just as amazingly anti-dynamic as a person is unclear, but either way, Control suffers from her constant, overly predictable input.

Visually, Control exemplifies the perfect union of content and form. Originally shot on color, but transferred to black-and-white, Control unifies its visual style with the iconic artwork of Joy Division’s two studio albums, “Unknown Pleasures” (1979) and “Closer” (1980), both of which feature cryptic black-and-white imagery. In addition to its link to the band’s classic album art, the black-and-white cinematography illustrates the bleak, desolate world of Curtis’ haunting lyrics, full of shadows, death, coldness, and solitude. Corbijn’s history as a photographer informs the film’s impressive framing and mature use of camera movement and color contrast, resulting in an unobtrusive yet effectively moody visual scheme and mise-en-scène. Corbijn’s camera, helmed expertly by Martin Ruhe, organically captures the melancholy Curtis’ worldview, being careful to pick up the image of a black bird flapping off screen as Curtis walks out of frame during one shot, and utilizing the ethereal dynamics of smoke from a church chimney in the film’s impacting final shot.

While Control, like nearly any narrative of Ian Curtis’ life, centers around the darkened mind of a tormented artist, the film also makes a point to reveal Curtis at moments of immense joy: losing himself to the sonic profundity of David Bowie albums as teenager, witnessing the Sex Pistols blistering live show for the first time, gyrating with gusto during Joy Division’s first televised performance. These scenes, primarily found in the first portion of the film, cast a fresh light on Curtis’ reputation as a brooding genius. Amidst all of the pain and tragedy of Curtis’ life, it is perhaps best to remember him as a young man who loved music and was endlessly passionate about his art, contemplating how he could make music like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop while lying down in a small bed, designed for one.

by Brandon Colvin
Continue reading...