Monday, February 28, 2011

On View: André Guerreiro Lopes' "The Flight of Tulugaq"

by James Hansen

André Guerreiro Lopes’ The Flight of Tulugaq is a short, reflective piece fitting for the Wexner Center’s The Box. The Box’s intimate screen confronts the expansive flight of ravens across the Alaskan skyline, yet Lopes’ film undoubtedly suggests the intimacy of this mysterious act. The Box allows the viewer to stand amidst the expansive universe, yet also get close enough to interact with the patterned actions of the unbounded, expansive mythology built around Flight’s 9-minute running time.

Seen first coming out of and around a series of trees, a group of ravens ravens fly together in a group. They quietly rattle the branches of the trees, their movement altering the limited sounds of the landscape around them. The ravens bound from tree to tree, or rise just above. The birds, seen from the view of Lopes’ camera, are impossible to contain. They start closer to the frame, but quickly move further away, becoming dots in an empty sky. They glide across the landscape with an indefinable sense of freedom.

continues as the birds move further away from the trees, slide upward and away from the abandoned world below them. Once isolated, they begin a strange dance in the sky. The ravens seem to play off one another, rolling downward before turning back up. Bouncing from side to side, up and down, they become partners of this mystical tango.

Yet, one by one, Lopes freezes the birds in the air. Forcefully stopping their flight, they are slowly brought together, peering out (and in) as two isolated eyes, two undoubtedly connected presences in this wonderful “song of the winds.” The ravens are no longer really flying so much as hovering, situated in a far off space to which Lopes’ camera cannot have access. They embody some long forgotten transcendent figure, always floating amidst an inaccessible, ungraspable expanse – one that can be seen and reflected upon from afar, yet can only be experienced and known by those part of its unique, distant flight.

The Flight of Tulugaq screened in the Wexner Center’s Box from February 1-28. See Jennifer Lange's conversation with Mr. Lopes for more information.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Love Is A Battlefield

by Chuck Williamson

At its core, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is an experiment in teratology: a stripped-down sideshow attraction where the toned, juvenated, hyper-sexualized bodies of movie stars mutate into scuzzed-out white trash grotesqueries. Moving fugue-like in odd atemporal rhythms, the film cruelly alternates between vesuvian post-marital meltdowns and the fumbling flirtations of a new relationship; it deliberately counterpoises every moment of halcyon romanticism with its self-destructive inversion until a final cataclysmic crescendo set against a literal barrage of fireworks.

Unfolding in a series of startling juxtapositions, Blue Valentine relishes in the perverse thrill of using its performers as blank canvases that can be hyperbolized and rendered ghoulish in the service of (over)enunciating its one-note “love stinks” theme. But even as Williams and Gosling exhibit a brutal and implosive intimacy, their transformations into working-class caricatures are symptomatic of the film’s confused oscillation between naturalism and hyperbolization; it continuously sledgehammers its myopically apocalyptic view of romantic ruination, punctuates several scenes with a veritable exclamation mark, and often nullifies the subtle, poignant poetry of moments that capture the minutiae and quiet interactions that form (and fracture) its central relationship.

As a pair of punch-drunk Brooklynites in love, Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) exude a youthful effervescence and raw libidinous energy: scrawny, spontaneous, matching every furtive glance with an act of carnal physicality. As embittered parents, they resemble a corn pone fever-dream of working-class miserablism: doughy, droopy-eyed, abjectified into a grotesque bodily spectacle that feeds our illicit love for the freak-show aesthetic. Little else exists beyond these extreme polarities as the film boils down the messy intricacies of relationships into simple, surface-level dichotomies.

Small, poignant moments of intimacy and despair—the incredulous laughter produced from an off-color joke, the small gestures lovers use to urge one another up a staircase, or the mournful response to the death of a family dog—subside in favor of combative, bare throated histrionics where each performer tediously implores some variant of, “What do you want me to do?” Blue Valentine uses its structural juxtapositions to render context and causality opaque, a potentially radical narrative device that merely makes the downward spiral of its central relationship frustratingly superficial. We never see even a glimpse of the intermediate five-year period where, with apologies to Annie Hall, “love fades,” but are instead disingenuously bounced between two extreme polarities: the idyllic beginnings and the purgatorial breakdown where bodies are dramatically deglamorized. Their relationship is reduced to dueling sound-bites.

As such, Blue Valentine is streamlined to the point of suppressing its contingencies, trading in moments of quiet observation for a collection of eruptive, overplayed, on-the-nose encounters that spell everything out in big, capital letters. Why else would the film so nakedly strain for dramatic irony through Gosling’s full-bodied ukulele rendition of “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” or foreshadow its central dramatic set-piece—set in a sci-fi themed love-motel—with winking one-liners like, “Pack your bags, babe, we’re going to the future?” Why else would it telegraph its marital dissolution with two fussy, overwritten exchanges where Dean and Cindy philosophize on the nature of love with their friends and family? Why else would the characters lack an interior life outside their combative romantic entanglements?

Even its structural conceit hinges on over-explicit juxtapositions that contrast multiple scenes from past and present to the same eye-rolling conclusion: love is easy and marriage is hard. Set against the din of meatloaf-tossing patriarchs, vituperative ex-boyfriends, and sleaze-bag doctors (“I thought you were promoting me because of my talent,” Cindy demurs at one point), Blue Valentine leaves little to the imagination as it repeatedly hammers the same note with a single-minded relentlessness.

But even at its most problematic, Blue Valentine still succeeds as an actor’s showcase for Williams and Gosling, who anchor even the most overblown and preposterous scenes with a bruised and battered humanism. Often transcending the more overheated passages from Cianfrance’s screenplay, the two principle performers make even the most repetitive shout-fests compelling and emerge as a source of pathos that almost makes up for the film’s clumsier solicitations for our sympathy—and that includes its perverse, rubber-necking fetishization of their deglamorization.

Which brings us to the veritable teratogenesis. Williams, for instance, slinks into frame like a haggard, sleep-deprived somnambulist who never seems to physically recover from having been forced out of bed by her shrieking five-year-old daughter; at times, she seems to sink into the cluttered and perpetually dingy mise-en-scene. But it is Ryan Gosling, as a harried, “too-old-for-this-shit” hipster past his sell-by date, who embodies the film’s worst impulses. Bleating out absurd pronouncements like, “Let’s get drunk and make loooove,” Gosling plays Dean as a twitchy, tattooed, balding, chain-smoking, pot-bellied loser, sloppily dressed in paint-smeared cargo pants, a Salvation Army eagle sweatshirt, and a pair of pedotastic tinted aviator glasses; his body, in a sense, is specularized into a ridiculous, pathos-hungry white trash spectacle that visualizes his fall from grace in a blunt, overreaching, semi-comic fashion.

Rendered ghoulish under the auspices of method acting (extolled in celebrity gossip columns in narratives of courage, commitment, and precipitous weight gain), their bodies denote a wild, larger-than-life exhibitionism that, to some degree, disrupts the inherent voyeurism of Blue Valentine’s unhinged emotional fallout—aided by intimate handheld camerawork and extreme close-ups—by privileging hyperbolized exteriors over psychic or emotional interiors. Their broken-down bodies double as objects of a fetishistic display that externalizes (and embellishes) Cianfrance’s contention that, well, “you always hurt the one you love,” and ultimately become hyper-visible in his last-ditch effort to show the literal damage of fading love. At its most poignant, the film opts to decenter corporeal grotesquery as the prime source of spectacle, as in an assaultive sexual encounter where claustrophobic framing and camera movement blur their bodies into a diaphanous tangle of torsos and limbs. But most of Blue Valentine puts us in an odd position where we are asked to empathize and gawk.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Obsessed and Confused

by James Hansen

Befuddlingly bland, The Roommate has a stock set up with plenty of room for crazy, but can’t even match the bizarre terror unleashed via the naming privileges of director Christian Christiansen’s parents. Perhaps trapped by its PG-13 rating (although it is consistently so cobbled together that placing blame is quite difficult), The Roommate never feels like horror movie, at least certainly not a scary one, and its attempts at psychological terror are equally ill-conceived and ineffective. The jumbled direction and screenwriting, punctuated by a distressing causal justification, leaves it terribly confused. Uniquely inept, The Roommate plays out as a completely different movie than the one pieced together before the viewer’s eyes.

Sara (Minka Kelly) is a college freshman moves onto campus at the University of Los Angeles without her boyfriend, Jason, who snubbed their deal to go to school together for a last minute spot at Brown. Eventually, she meets her roommate, Rebecca (Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester), who comes off as a bit strange – a trip to see Richard Prince’s Nurse Paintings doesn’t help – but mostly stays in her room and appears to be relatively kind. Rebecca starts cracking when Sara’s attention turns elsewhere: the friend down the hall, the suave fashion professor (Billy Zane!), the sexy boyfriend (Cam Gigandet aka that dude from The OC and Burlesque!). Rebecca can’t handle anyone getting between her and her obsession.

Sadly, The Roommate is miscast, poorly written, edited, and directed, or all of the above. Meester, as Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, has proven she can play a complex queen and evil bitch quite effectively, swinging from the world of backstabbing, artificial validation (and great clothes) to the world of a deeply effected, vulnerable, privileged teenager trying to figure out the world around her (while still wearing great clothes). Here, Meester’s nonchalant charisma and charm turn Rebecca into something more than the purely evil roommate. It is rather clear The Roommate wants nothing to do with these added dimensions, as Meester’s performance contradicts the dangerous tone proposed by many of the Christiansen’s horror-based directorial choices.

But what is calling for Rebecca’s straight up craziness? Christiansen’s direction pushes her in that way. The script, on the other hand, calls for Meester’s characterization through its building of a narrative beyond its standard set up. The contradiction, then, that we feel coming off the screen does not involve Meester, but rather the disconnect between the screenplay and its direction. Screenwriter Sonny Malhi provides us with a strange amount of exposition about Rebecca, complete with a Thanksgiving trip home to her supportive, concerned, upper class parents. Christiansen and Malhi construct this scene merely as a way to reveal a downplayed, explanatory plot point, yet it shows not only that Rebecca has two sides, but also poses a much larger problem.

The parent’s revelation pinpoints a fundamental shift in The Roommate’s schema, which goes unrecognized by Christiansen or Malhi. Malhi’s half-hearted, yet fully invested justification for the Rebecca’s unstable actions – she’s schizophrenic and/or bipolar and off her meds! – inadvertently turns this horror saga into a strangely sad one. [I would have included a major spoiler sign if it seemed like The Roommate actually cared about said “spoiler.”] Rebecca isn’t some crazed slasher, terrorizing the friends of her roommate out of sheer delight. (Truthfully, that would make for a better horror movie and seems to be the movie Christiansen & Malhi think they are making). Instead, she’s a mentally unstable girl with no friends whose problems potentially could have been offset by a helping hand and a trip to the guidance counselor. At least when Buffy wanted to kill her college roommate, she made sure it was a conspiratorial, soul-sucking demon first.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Out 1 Film Journal's Best of 2010

Before we get to the lists, a personal note. (Skip to after the break if you want to skip this jibber jab). If the creation of lists has us reflect on the year past, it is hard to do so at this site without offering a bit of an explanation (and, perhaps, an apology) for our limited output in 2010. While our absence could be seen as an ‘alternative’ web site, surrounded by another year of underachieving Hollywood films, and quietly folding into cavernous, academic caves, there is more to it that has less to do with our ongoing interests in cinema and more to do with a major transition year for each of the writers you’ve come to know (or are stumbling upon) at this site. (I don’t intend to speak for Chuck or Brandon in the next paragraphs, but our attitude towards the site and movies in general is precisely the reason this site has continued for the past 3+ years and is revamping, so we hope, in 2011. Have to say, we’re off to a good start).

For brief, exclamatory, explanatory recognition: each of the writers at this site is currently working towards a PhD in some cinema and/or art-related field. Not that this actually gives us any more qualifications or anything, but it’s something I’m proud to tout nonetheless. In 2010, my major transition (which contributed to the lack of a site for much of the year) came in the form of leaving New York, Columbia, and Film Studies proper for Columbus, The Ohio State, and Art History. An exciting change, but one that had me in the middle of nowhere over the summer before situating in Columbus and trying to find ways to make it seem like it isn’t also nowhere. Thanks mainly to the Wexner Center, film culture, as it were, isn’t lost, but it took most of the last third of 2010 to re-find its place in myself. I wondered if the site should go the way of New York for me – a great memory that I cling to, but know I have to leave behind.

What I slowly remembered throughout my first quarter in Columbus, though, was why I started this site in the first place (and why I was determined - and thrilled - to find dedicated writing cohorts with whom the site would be built): without a level of engagement, critical thought, and reflection, cinema (and art) can become meaningless. Some people accept it as such, and I fear, when I stopped writing, that I began feeling that way too. But this site, from its inception, was not only invested, but demanded – and knew – there was more. Nearing the end of 2010, I realized the reason I missed the site was also the reason I felt distant from art – I was leaving behind a crucial part of the process. I don’t intend on doing so again. Part of that process relies on a community – whether in local cities, states, art houses, dollar theaters, film festivals, or Twitter where I had most of my favorite discussions about film this year; part of it relies on finding artists who create work to examine questions rather than play inane tricks and force-feed explanations and answers; and part of it relies on viewers who ask for more from artists and hope, no matter the kind of work, that they discover new worlds.

The best cinema in 2010 did just that. Very few of the best came from expected sources, but that may be precisely why they continue to stand out. In honor of the film whose name this website yoinked, we offer our individual lists of the 13 best films of the year. And, with a nod of gratitude, we wish all of our readers uniquely great cinema in 2011.

Brandon Colvin’s Top 13 of 2010

1. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
2. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)
3. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
4. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
5. Dogtooth (Giorgios Lanthimos)
6. Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Refn)
7. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
8. Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine)
9. Alamar (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio)
10. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy?)
11. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
12. Let Me In (Matt Reeves)
13. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Best Director:
Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer

Best Lead Performance:
Aggeliki Papoulia - Dogtooth & Steve-O - Jackass 3D

James Hansen’s Top 13 of 2010

1. Ne Change Rien (Pedro Costa)
2. Dogtooth (Giorgios Lanthimos)
3. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
4. Flooding With Love For The Kid (Zachary Oberzon)
5. Carlos [330-minute version] (Olivier Assayas)
6. Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Manoel de Oliveira)
7. Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremain)
8. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
9. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
10. How Do You Know? (James L. Brooks)
11. Everyone Else (Maren Ade)
12. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
13. Our Beloved Month of August (Miguel Gomes)

Best Director:
Jessica Hausner - Lourdes

Best Lead Performance:
Sylvie Testud - Lourdes & Zachary Oberzan - Flooding With Love For The Kid

Best Supporting Performance:
Greta Gerwig - Greenberg & The Crying Cowboy- Sweetgrass

Best Unreleased Film:
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (duh)

Chuck Williamson’s Top 13 of 2010

1. Alamar (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio)
2. Dogtooth (Giorgios Lanthimos)
3. Mother (Joon-ho Bong)
4. White Material (Claire Denis)
5. Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor)
6. Wild Grass (Alaina Resnais)
7. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
8. I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Fearra & John Requa)
9. Burlesque (Steve Antin)
10. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
11. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
12. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
13. Enter The Void (Gaspar Noe)

Best Director:
Gaspar Noe - Enter the Void

Best Lead Performance:
Kim Hye-ja - Mother & Do-yeon Jeon - Secret Sunshine (tie) & Jim Carrey - I Love You Phillip Morris

Best Supporting Performance:
Olivia Williams - The Ghost Writer & Song Kang-ho - Secret Sunshine

Best Unreleased Film:
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives & Oki’s Movie

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