Articles by

<Michael Joshua Rowin>

04/24/13 4:00am

Something in the Air
Directed by Olivier Assayas

In the miniseries Carlos (2010), director Assayas captured the descent of the post-May ’68 European Left by following his eponymous terrorist-mastermind into hell, charting with fascination and pity the revolution’s Faustian bargain with mercenary violence. Assayas’s latest can be seen as an unofficial companion piece to Carlos (the new film’s original title: After May), but the tenor this time is decidedly purgatorial, the political radicalism simmering to a disillusioned cool amid the hesitations of teenage confusion.

In this, Something also shares much with Assayas’s Cold Water (1994), another elegiac counterculture reverie from which the director now recycles the names of his two leads: Gilles (Clément Métayer), a high school anarchist and burgeoning painter, and Christine (Lola Créton), a like-minded classmate with filmmaking aspirations. Both partake in extracurricular activities typical of early-70s French youth—bloody confrontations with the police, underground newspaper hawking, agit-prop vandalism—all in service to a fringe-yet-well-organized Leftist organization.

While laying low in Italy—after a potentially identity-exposing assault on school security—Gilles and Christine’s world at once broadens and rots; drugs, new-age mysticism, unwanted pregnancies, and work for apolitical or else out-and-out establishment employers (these bourgeois kids never fully renounce their silver spoons) dilute a once-steadfast commitment to The Cause. It’s also during the trip abroad that the film divides its attention, giving significant screen time to peripheral characters—an American diplomat’s daughter and student of “sacred dance”; Gilles’s ex, an eventual victim of jet-set decadence—that nonetheless remain narrative ornaments. A vague romanticism and even vaguer moralism results.

And though Something is, per Assayas, thoroughly and often unconventionally sublime in its construction—the naturally muted blues and greens at which DP Eric Gautier arrives are as anti-sepia-tone-nostalgic as the soundtrack’s strange, unsettling use of Syd Barrett and Soft Machine—much of its beauty feels self-derivative: the “sinuous tracking shot through a grand, conflagrating party,” for instance, was done in Cold Water to far greater emotional effect. That’s because that film’s beautiful young drifters were kept at the center of the story; here, the initial focus on Gilles and Christine becomes fuzzy—and so too does the movie’s political and moral resonance.

Opens May 3

02/13/13 4:00am

Like Someone in Love
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

So subtle and unrushed are Abbas Kiarostami’s films that
you could be forgiven for over-looking the legendary Iranian director as a mischievous master of ruse. Delaying information through narrative misdirection and undermining visual certainty through challenging representations of space, Kiaro-stami consistently denies our ability to understand his characters or to know their stories—even throwing into question our very desire to do so.

He last pulled the rug out from under the audience in 2010 with Certified Copy, a sui generis experiment in which a seemingly straightforward romance becomes two separate if related films through an “impossible” mutation of its lead roles. Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami’s latest, isn’t nearly as audacious as Copy, yet it also offers a gradually insidious consideration of deception and duplicity. Set in Tokyo, the film opens with a lengthy establishing shot of a high-class restaurant where a vague conversation takes place somewhere unlocatable. The restaurant turns out to be the headquarters of an escort service, the conversation a one-sided, offscreen phone denial by Akiko (Rin Takanashi), who must fake out jealous, suspicious boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) to keep him ignorant of her illicit job.

Avoiding her patiently adoring grandmother, Akiko pays a professional visit to the elderly Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). The gentle writer and translator eventually becomes embroiled in Akiko and Noriaki’s relationship, first as an accomplice in concealing her double life, then as a feeble shield against the young man’s humiliated rage. Employing his signature tricks (endless long takes, retroactive point-of-view shots) and motifs (car interiors), Kiarostami gauges not so much the parameters of cinematic manipulation and artifice (though that’s here, too) as those of everyday honesty and fraud. When can we lie, and when should we lie? Just as Akiko—at once the model for an enticing advert and the likeness of a masterpiece canvas—creates a multiplicity of identities, so does Like Someone suggest several divergent, uncertain answers.

Opens February 15

01/30/13 4:00am

Little Fugitive
Directed by Morris Engel

For the opening credits of Ray Ashley, Ruth Orkin, and Morris Engel’s 1953 landmark, the plaintive strains of harmonica maestro Eddy Manson’s “Home on the Range” play over a crude sidewalk drawing of a horse-riding cowboy. It’s a moment of ironic pathos—a child’s outsized dreams of the vast American frontier expressed through the humble means available to lower-middle-class urban confinement—made doubly ironic by the passage of time: now 60 years old, Little Fugitive and its quasi-vérité narrative of a young boy’s wide-eyed journey through Coney Island appears like that sidewalk sketch, a seemingly artless rendering of a vanished world.

But the movie is far from artless, and no mere nostalgia trip. Often credited as the first major American independent—and cited by François Truffaut as the French New Wave’s principle inspiration—the film was largely conceived by Engel, a Paul Strand-mentored photographer who grew up in Coney. Little Fugitive views a child’s universe as founded on abandonment, fear, and wonder: far beyond supervision, Western-crazy, tagalong seven-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) leaves the confines of his neighborhood to revel in beach and carnival attractions, but only because he’s been tricked into believing he’s killed his put-upon older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster).

Obvious pleasures derive from the film’s time-capsule documentation of Brooklyn regionalisms (“fellas,” “wuz,” and other patois feature heavily in the dialogue) and cultural institutions (Coney’s peak-era chaos has never been more lovingly detailed). Yet as with so many a cinematic treasure, Little Fugitive reveals its greater glory through universal resonances. Serving as his own DP and aided by a homemade handheld camera, Engel trains his eye on the simultaneously exhilarating and drowsy moments in which a child becomes lost to the world and found to himself—none more moving than Joey, all alone under the boardwalk, mesmerized by the sun shining through the slats as the whole world seems to pass overhead.

Opens February 1

01/16/13 4:00am

Hors Satan
Directed by Bruno Dumont

God v. Satan: the oldest conflict, yet one prone to the most reductive dramatic representations. Bruno Dumont, however, keeps consistently clear of facile Manichaeism: with Hors Satan (“Outside Satan”), the stylistically ascetic, brutally confrontational, and theology-obsessed French director depicts the deity and the devil as dually incarnate in a man (David Dewaele)—or messiah—who visits both righteous miracles and malicious wrath upon the citizens of a rural Normandy village. His reasons for so doing remain mysterious; Dumont’s reasons for sustaining this mystery become increasingly poignant.

Dewaele’s unnamed drifter sleeps in the open air on the outskirts of town while being fed on the sly by a pasty (and also unnamed) goth girl (Alexandra Lemâtre); he repays this generosity by offing her abusive stepfather with a shotgun and staunching a forest fire by mere command. But taciturn Dewaele goes far beyond righting wrongs, making pulp of a local guard (Christophe Bon) who declares his affection for Lemâtre, and inducing seizures in—and nearly choking to death—a hitchhiker (Aurore Boutin) just looking for an easy lay. Even Dewaele’s accidental shooting of a deer appears to be a consequence of his natural propensity for destruction.

Dumont imposes further ambiguity on the film’s visual and sonic environments. His style is typically described as “Bressonian,” but there are long takes here—especially those featuring characters disappearing down dreary roads, desolate fields, and mournful dunes—that move well beyond his spiritual mentor’s clipped, exacting rhythms. Evoking a depressed and desiccated languor (the film’s ambient sound design has every shoe-crunch and leaf-rustle assume metaphysical enormity), Dumont startles the audience with intermittent bursts of tenderness and violence, from the unexplained cupped-handed, sky-worshipping meditations of Dewaele and Lemâtre to the halo-like nebula of the sun shining through a forest where a bloodied man gasps for breath. Realized by cinematographer Yves Cape, Dumont’s firm, minimal compositions suggest the world as a blank slate upon which the divine or the diabolical can all too easily leave their marks.

Of course, the above-mentioned moments will likely be taken for granted by those already familiar with Dumont, who’s been creating good-within-evil/spectacular-within-mundane allegories in this vein since 1997’s The Life of Jesus. Does Hors Satan add anything to the director’s preoccupations? After a loose trilogy in response to the “war on terror” (Twentynine Palms, Flanders, Hadewijch), the new film signals a return to the universal resonances of early films like Jesus and Humanité. In this light the nearly expressionless acting that Dumont fosters in his performers comes across as even flatter in Hors Satan, the refusal to render judgment on Dewaele even more oblique and unsettling than parallel anti-resolutions in recent efforts. The last point actually deserves qualification: a concluding miracle feels somewhat unearned, as if Dumont were balancing the overwhelming pessimism of his last decade of work with a contrived and derivative attempt at redemption. (The iconography is straight out of Ordet.) Nonetheless: Hors Satan is that rare study of opposed yet inextricable moral forces that is enlivened rather than over-whelmed by insoluble, eternal struggle.

Opens January 18

12/24/12 4:00am

Directed by Miguel Gomes

Set half in present-day Lisbon and half in Africa during the Portuguese Colonial War, Gomes’s follow-up to his sublime Our Beloved Month of August belongs entirely to a hushed, choked world of faded idylls and endless purgatories. After a mysterious, foreshadowing prologue, the film splits into two sections, the first titled “Paradise Lost” and the second “Paradise.” In the former Gomes indeed envisions Lisbon as a way station of tarnished grace, where gentle, pious activist Pilar (Teresa Madruga) oversees the final days of her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), a heavily medicated gambler and abandoned mother slowly succumbing to senility. As experienced through Pilar’s humble Catholicism, the city and its lonely inhabitants—young, ungrateful Polish missionaries, taciturn Cape Verdean maids, unrequited modernist painters—become living ghosts wandering in and out of cinematographer Rui Poças’ stark, unsentimental black-and-white compositions.

Despite a truncated narrative that unfairly jettisons Pilar and several subplots, “Paradise Lost” rewards viewers in mood and, retroactively, thematic parallelisms; as narrated by Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), a man with whom Aurora surprisingly requests contact, “Paradise” is near perfect. Ventura’s voiceover performs the heavy expository lifting in lieu of dialogue or much diegetic sound, telling the story of his affair as a dashing young ruffian (Carloto Cotta) with headstrong young Aurora (Ana Moreira), heiress to a farm at the base of Mount Tabu in the 1960s. The story itself is predictable—stifled by a boring marriage and pregnancy, Aurora falls in love with Ventura and subsequently ruins their lives—yet it achieves vividness as an eerie reverie, with sharp glimpses of colonial rot and encroaching nature clashing against Ventura’s wistful musings and Spector-stamped pop gems. Put together, “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise” produce an ironic moral about the lasting legacy of political resignation and romantic regret, but also—and just as important—a lush invocation of damaged longings and memories.

Opens December 26

02/29/12 4:00am

By László Krasznahorkai
Trans. George Szirtes
(New Directions)

László Krasznahorkai’s moment, at least in the United States, is now. The Hungarian novelist, best known outside his native land for the film adaptations/collaborations he’s undertaken with countryman Béla Tarr, is finally receiving from the West the recognition and appreciation he deserves more than two and a half decades after his first work. In a comprehensive overview in the New Yorker last July, James Wood aimed his spotlight at Krasznahorkai, and now New Directions—publisher of the only Krasznahorkai novels translated for American readers, The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War—has put into print an English version of the writer’s most well-known title, Satantango.

Satantango is Krasznahorkai’s 1985 debut novel; it is also the source of Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour 1994 film of the same name, one of the titanic masterpieces of the last quarter-century of world cinema (Krasznahorkai co-wrote its script with Tarr). It will thus be impossible for at least some Americans to avoid thinking of Tarr’s Satantango while reading Krasznahorkai’s. Indeed, what’s immediately striking about Satantango the novel is how interior it is: while Tarr’s epic, naturalistic long-takes remain resolutely on the outside of the story’s action, Krasznahorkai’s unbroken paragraphs of endless, labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness plumb its subterranean depths.

The story centers on a godforsaken rural village, once organized around a collective farm that has collapsed and thus left the surrounding community bereft of financial prospects or hope. Several villagers, backstabbing among themselves, scheme to leave town with some stolen money, but before they can, they hear of the impending return of Irimais, a confident, smooth-talking village leader secretly in the employ of the authoritarian state. Irimais was once thought dead, so his presence in the village inspires expectations and fears of biblical proportions, especially in regard to events—a young idiot girl’s suicide, an obese doctor’s further descent into eccentric hermitism, the tolling of unseen church bells—coinciding with this anti-prophet’s dramatic reappearance.

Though only 274 pages, Satantango is dense with hand-me-downs of aggressive modernism that also appear throughout Krasznahorkai’s later work: the scorched-earth purgatories of Beckett, the digressive inner monologues and shifting points-of-view of Woolf, the dark magical realism of Borges, even the smalltown tragedy and slapstick of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. What prevents Satantango from devolving into a mere exercise in clever derivation, however, is Krasznahorkai’s fervent mission to thoroughly mine the mysteriousness, and potential miraculousness, of a seemingly corrupt physical reality. His wry, snake-like sentences produce—or unspool—layer upon layer of psychological insight, metaphysical revelation, and macroscopic historical perspective (both the contemporaneous drabness of the Communist era and the eternity of geological time are deftly evoked), as if in obsessive creation and truth-seeking against the cynical, destructive con jobs perpetrated by the Irimaises of the world. No surprise, then, that the novel should end on a meta-trick revealing the author of Satantango to be a character (shades, again, of Beckett) who believes that “to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” Krasznahorkai chooses not only to defend, but also to become, that bridge.

08/26/11 4:02pm


I’ve regularly written about movies since 2003, but since 2004 I did so for The L Magazine (along with the odd assignment on books and baseball) roughly every two weeks, and sometimes with even greater frequency. That made it the longest and most consistent job I’ve held in my life. Crazy.

In any case, I write in the past tense because I likely won’t be contributing much more for The L now that I’ve re-entered academia and traded in publicity packets for Derrida photocopies. I’m going to try to contribute to my favorite NYC mag whenever I find free time, but that might not be often or perhaps at all.

And that saddens me because, in the first place, I won’t be able to say that I write for a film section featuring some of the best critics out there: Mark Asch, Miriam Bale, Dan Callahan, Jesse Hassenger, Nick Pinkerton, Nic Rapold, Andrew Schenker, Henry Stewart, Justin Stewart, Benjamin Sutton. (There is also a veritable battalion of great writers relatively new to the film section—I only name those whom I’ve known the longest). They have all in some way inspired me as friends, colleagues, or both.

In the second place, along with Reverse Shot, The L represents the site—in both senses of the term—that most strongly marked my professional development. I still dread to look back at my first capsule reviews (the very first was for The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, I believe), but suffice it to say that the more I wrote for The L over the years the more I learned about how to write and what it means to be a critic. I’d like to think that all those hours in front of a glowing computer screen allowed me to build upon my thinking and my knowledge in regard to film, criticism, and maybe even life itself.

I hope you’ll indulge the grandiosity of that last statement—films have become an inextricable part of my existence over the last fifteen years or so, a fact attested to by the following very personal list of best film endings I’ve compiled as a possible last article for The L. The idea for such a list came to me out of a deep-rooted suspicion of overly sentimental farewell columns (I’ve likely created one with this introduction anyway) and yet a longing to do something appropriate for what might be my parting salvo. In choosing candidates I thought of what great endings consist of and how they achieve their resonances. They are usually strong, cumulative in effect, perhaps even “epic,” but also mysterious, ambiguous, jarring, unsettling, and eerily reverberating—providing not so much resolution or closure, but deepening and expanding everything that has preceded it. Hopefully this column will perform a similar feat in its own right; at the very least it seeks to discuss and interpret some of the finest endings to have done so for their respective films.

Fellini’s Casanova (1976)

Has anyone in the history of cinema directed as many powerful endings as Federico Fellini? Zampanò looking up at the stars and breaking down in tears as he recalls the dead Gelsomina’s mournful trumpet theme in La Strada; Marcello failing to communicate with the angelic girl across a windy shore after an all-night reverie in La dolce vita; Guido gathering together the cast of characters of his life—past and present, real and fictional—for a dance around a circus ring in 8 1/2; Encolpio speaking in voiceover about sailing for lands unknown but getting cut off mid-sentence and transforming back into an ancient Roman fresco in Fellini Satyricon.

In the rarely seen or discussed Fellini’s Casanova, the Maestro constructs his most powerful finale of all, a haunting, elliptical (no Fellini film ever really ends) testament to the pathetic failure of phallocentric narcissism. Staying true to the facts of Giacomo Casanova’s life while filtering them through the dark prism of his patented expressionistic distanciation, Fellini depicts the famous 18th-century man of letters’ endless parade of sexual conquests as an unfulfilling compulsion developing from a sycophantic relationship to authority and non-existent spiritual center.

At the end of his life and at the end of the film Casanova is a has-been, treated more like a common household servant or court jester while in the employ of the Czech Count Waldstein than the nobleman he still believes himself to be. Aged in body yet remaining an emotional juvenile, Casanova conjures one last dream-fantasy of oblivious bliss, recalling himself at the height of his youth and powers in a desolate, iced-over plaza covered in the shadows of midnight as the images from his past materialize and disappear like apparitions: the giant head of an icon that had failed to emerge from the water during the Venice carnival of the film’s opening scene; an anonymous group of women tittering and running away from their eternal pursuer; the pope, previously the recipient of Casanova’s pathetic avalanche of ring-kisses during a meeting between the two phonies; and, most significantly, Isabella, the waxy automaton that Casanova had once bedded in the greatest sexual encounter of his life.

The other figures point Casanova toward the lifelike doll, the only woman who can perfectly mirror his soullessness. They dance. Perhaps taking a page from George Bernard Shaw and his Don Juan in Hell, Fellini has set Casanova not in the Europe of the 1700s but in the fiery furnaces of his antihero’s vapidity; thus one of the culminating shots is an extreme close-up of the older, still-fantasizing Casanova’s eyes, nearly satanic in their emptiness—Fellini once said he cast Donald Sutherland in the lead role because he possessed “the eyes of a masturbator.” The dance resumes as Casanova and his beloved slowly spin in place like mechanical toys. The greatest lover in the world has earned his eternal reward, locked in a metronomic embrace with his own ego, revolving into the frozen void of his own existential death.

Burn After Reading (2008)

Aside for A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading contains my favorite film ending of recent years. I chose it for this list not only because it’s dark, hilarious, and completely unexpected—in it most of the movie’s narrative loose ends aren’t shown but only described in a discussed CIA case report—but also because it displays the understated wit of a pair of siblings known more for their verbal gymnastics.

My viewing relationship to the Coen Brothers’ films has been relatively tumultuous. It started with coup de foudre: Fargo, Barton Fink, and, of course, The Big Lebowski were all sacred texts during my high school years, each a thin ray of weird and profound playfulness breaking through a forest of bland Hollywood crap. That love started to fade with O Brother, Where Art Thou and the initiation of a fallow period—aside for The Man Who Wasn’t There—that brought out the hammier and hokier tendencies in the Coens’ work. (I’ve begun to reconsider this phase—look for an upcoming piece in Reverse Shot by yours truly on the hidden complexities of The Ladykillers). But starting with No Country For Old Men they went on a roll that lasted until the disappointingly safe True Grit. Burn After Reading and A Serious Man constitute their strongest one-two punch of bitterly black satires on American ethics.

Before its brilliant epilogue, Burn leaves the viewer with a “clusterfuck” of catastrophes that befall a sordid cast of greedy, vain, egomaniacal, moronic, duplicitous, skeazy, and emotionally crippled denizens of Washington D.C. (excepting poor, unrequited Richard Jenkins) who somehow become connected through the missing files of a former disgruntled CIA analyst’s memoirs. The humor in the coda hinges on the unrepentant amorality of J.K. Simmons’ CIA superior, who only wants the madness put into motion by the missing files ended. When David Rasche’s sputtering officer reports the grim news that an agent was forced to shoot the analyst, Simmons pauses for a moment of reflection and then responds, “Good. Great. Is he dead?” The frustrated grimace that steals across his face after Rasche explains the analyst is merely lying in a coma is absolutely priceless. Following further details of inanity and insanity perpetrated by me-first ingrates, the final dialogue of the movie says everything about 21st-century America (especially its opaque, myopic federal government) without an ounce of self-righteous finger-wagging:

“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“What do we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learn not to do it again.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Fucked if I know what we did.”
“Yes, sir. It’s hard to say.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”

Spies (1928)

Fittingly, in writing about a film centered on duplicity, I’m going to cheat. Just a few months ago I wrote for Fandor about Fritz Lang’s underappreciated Spies, and I don’t know how to evoke or interpret any better the strange and frantic ending of that film any better or differently than I did then.

First, however, some background. Anyone serious about movies knows that Lang cemented his directorial legend relatively early in his career with late-silent era films like Metropolis and early sound era films like M. Spies comes in the middle of these masterpieces, and gets lost between them—it doesn’t culminate a stylistic period (German Expressionism) like the former and doesn’t innovate the brand new cinematic technology at its disposal like the latter.

But it accomplishes more on its own thrillingly gonzo terms. Like Metropolis and M, Spies bursts with a paranoia concerning the anonymity and structures of power that govern the sprawling modern city. Yet it is also a Boys’ Life depiction of secret agent derring-do, with silly gadgets and disguises aiding undercover police and the criminal mastermind, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), they aim to bring down. The film’s ending perfectly melds these two tones, with Haghi surrounded by officers while putting on a public performance as his clown alter ego, Nemo (to round out the triumvirate, Haghi also fronts as a bank president). Here’s what I previously wrote about this one-of-a-kind ending:

It is within the chaotic, sprawling, amorphous city that a man of many faces and miniscule scruples like Haghi can prosper. Though the villain’s machinations are eventually thwarted and order restored, it’s more than significant that Haghi goes out on his own terms. Dressing up as a clown and hamming it up in front of an audience of swells whom he seeks to hold in his power, Haghi shoots himself (suicide instead of capture is a frequent motif in the film) and yells “Curtain!” to a rousing ovation. Thus Spies concludes on a fantastically ironic note. In a world where political and social warfare is conducted as an elaborate farce of false identities and masked allegiances, even death must ultimately become a “keep ’em laughing” performance. For the naïve, decadent, and unassuming populace, it’s just another evening’s entertainment.

Pierrot le fou (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard represents a thunderclap along the landscape of my personal discovery of cinema. Whenever I recall my first time encountering Band of Outsiders, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Pierrot le fou as part of a retrospective the George Eastman House put on at the tail end of 2000 in honor of the director’s seventieth birthday, the very specific feelings—usually of an anything-is-possible passion coupled with a sustained melancholy I had never seen adequately evoked on film before—that accompanied those revelatory screenings immediately overtake my physical being.

Of course, re-watching Godard makes for even more powerful experiences, and the film that always “gets me”—no matter how many times I go back to it—is Pierrot le fou. What makes Pierrot so brilliant is the way its anarchic goofiness somehow perfectly complements its deep romantic eschatology. But while Godard has always had a penchant for endings in which his heroes and heroines meet absurd and arbitrary deaths, by far the funniest and most tragic—the funniest for being the most tragic and the most tragic for being the funniest—occurs in Pierrot, where our titular protagonist (also called Ferdinand, and played by the inimitable Jean-Paul Belmondo) offs himself by painting his countenance a Lego-block blue and then wrapping two enormous rolls of yellow and red dynamite around his head: suicide as pop art. Being a man of contemplation and not action, Pierrot/Ferdinand second-guesses even this grand finale, changing his mind at the last second and futilely attempting to stamp out a rapidly shortening fuse. Pure existential slapstick, made especially poignant by the classic Rimbaud lines spoken in voiceover by P/F and also dead femme fatale Marianne (Anna Karina) as Godard’s camera pans from the explosion to the glimmering Mediterranean: “It is recovered!/What? Eternity./It is the sea gone with the sun.”

Slacker (1991)

All the endings listed thus far could be fairly classified as “bleak.” What better way to, yes, end on a high note then to pick an optimistic finale—though also an unusual (and qualified: the closing credits that succeed it are accompanied by the Butthole Surfers’ “Strangers Die Every Day”) one—from Slacker, the first film with which I really fell in love. And not in the way I fell in love with films pre-adolescence, when I usually responded to the more, shall we say, “theme park qualities” of my objects of affection. Instead, Slacker spoke to me—literally. Comprised largely of monologues from a motley cast of self-absorbed conspiracy buffs, Quixotic soap box revolutionaries, bullshitting elderly anarchists, drunk Smurf theorists, and paranoid late-show junkies, this was a movie that magnificently refracted what I saw as the multifarious nature of my own budding, eccentric, rambling self.

I’ve probably never been, and never will be, the brilliant found object many of the friends and acquaintances Richard Linklater cast for his debut feature turned out to be, but I do feel that at this point I’m as much of an authority on cinema as that weird skinny woman in Slacker is on Madonna pap smears, and I can say from having watched it upwards of several dozen times that for all its ranting and raving Slacker is a far more visual film than it’s often given credit for. The low-budget production is deservedly revered for capturing Austin in all its pre-SXSW charm, but nowhere is Linklater’s way with images better exemplified than in its glorious conclusion. A young woman emerges from the house where she spent a presumably unfulfilling one-night stand and walks down a street, passing an old man speaking his observations into a cassette recorder. “When young, we mourn for one woman—as we grow old, for women in general,” we first catch him saying in wistful response. His last words are, “The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely. Only later will it clarify itself and become coherent.” Such optimism is soon opposed and drowned out by a madman driving by in a car, announcing a “free weapons giveaway program” to “solve all these goddamn problems,” listing a ridiculous catalogue of tools of destruction (“Catapults throwin’ rocks an’ shit, blowin’ up undercover shit”) through the speaker system inside his vehicle in order to persuade the awakening citizenry. Doom wins the day.

But then a convertible full of young, college-aged pleasure-seekers pulls up alongside the lunatic. The last minutes of the film are seen through the rapidly cut, color-warping footage these kids shoot on super-8 cameras; the last shot of all is a whirling chaos of motion as a camera is launched from the hands of a carefree reveler standing on a rocky cliff overlooking the city. After all the frustrated, futile, and often faux philosophy of Slacker’s previous hour and a half—in which each briefly encountered character vies to impose his or her reality on our consciousness, whether by humble introspection (the old man) or violent hysterics (the madman in the car)—a camera liberated from human control acts as a metaphor for, and allows us to participate in, “giving ourselves to life completely.” The feeling generated is one of both weightless joy and dread of the unknown, which really amount to the same thing in, yes, the end.


08/03/11 4:00am

Magic Trip
Directed by Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney

Sundry events are said to have culturally initiated the 1960s; Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s documentary Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place gives the honor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest writer Kesey’s legendary 1964 cross-country journey with navigator Neal Cassady and a puckish group of friends calling themselves The Merry Pranksters. Rolling in a tricked-out, day-glo school bus (christened “Furthur”) from La Honda, California to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, the Pranksters dropped acid, desegregated Southern swimming spots, razzed Barry Goldwater in the presidential hopeful’s hometown, and generally freaked out locals and themselves on the way to some sort of proto-hippie satori.

This fantastic voyage and the ensuing LSD-infused happenings orchestrated by Kesey back in No-Cal are all documented in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Left largely unseen—unless you were there, man—was the footage the pranksters shot of their pilgrimage. Gibney and Ellwood have now organized and distilled the notorious 40-plus hours of chaos into an accessible 107-minute summary, with recorded narration by Kesey (who died in 2001) and other Pranksters looking back on their adventures. Such an approach forsakes immediacy. “The Movie” was originally supposed to be viewed in an extended, multimedia format, usually under shambolic and inebriated conditions; watching the past-tense Magic Trip is like watching a baseball game with play-by-play announced forty years after the fact.

On the other hand, disparities between the visual hi-jinks and aural reminiscences create revealing fractures. The wonderfully raspy Jane Burton frequently admits how forced the fun could be, and how the nonstop drugs and scene-making took its toll on fragile personalities. Though consistent hallucinatory ornamentation—including a surprisingly evocative illustration of Kesey’s first tape-recorded, MKULTRA-instigated LSD experience—allows Magic Trip to make good on its title, the film’s first-person commentaries provide the necessary shading to account for the inevitable bummers encountered by its free spirits.

Opens August 5

07/20/11 4:00am

Four Adventures of Reinette 
and Mirabelle (1987)

Directed by Eric Rohmer

Deeming Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle “Eric Rohmer lite” will appear redundant to those who consider the late French New Wave legend’s films wispy; it will appear ill-fitting to those who consider them sublime. But as chronologically sandwiched between poignantly searching Summer (1986) and poignantly ironic Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987), Four Adventures can’t help but feel obvious and unfocused by comparison, a rare frivolity in a career of consistently yet subtly varied studies of romantic and 
philosophical dilemmas.

And yet I’ll take it if only for first of the film’s four episodes, “The Blue Hour,” in which jaded city slicker Mirabelle (Jessica Forde) befriends bubbly country gal Reinette (Joëlle Miquel) in the latter’s quiet rural village. Introduced to the marvels of nature, Mirabelle becomes curious about the pre-dawn “blue hour” of perfect silence Reinette speaks of in nearly transcendent terms. The longed-for moment fosters an unspoken connection between the two young women that Rohmer captures with crepuscular photography and an ineffable, subdued magic.

After that, things get… broad. Reinette becomes Mirabelle’s roommate in Paris, the odd couple engaging in predictable encounters with rude waiters, hustling panhandlers and pretentious gallery owners. Rohmer fishes for morals and laughs in the vein of middling sketch-comedy—Reinette must sell her painting but has bet Mirabelle she can go a full day without talking! How will she get out of this one!?—and instead draws up mostly humorless fables that belabor the naïve and self-righteous Reinette’s disillusionment in the face of urban asperity. The casual charm that suffuses even the worst of Rohmer provides Four Adventures with its small pleasures—Forde and Miquel are both wonderful—but the weak call-back of the silence motif merely underlines the disparity between “The Blue Hour” and its lesser sister tales.

Opens July 20 at BAM

07/06/11 4:00am

The Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Catherine Breillat

Opens July 8 at IFC Center

“Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who’s had a dream with a dwarf in it? The only place I’ve seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this!” So ranted Living in Oblivion‘s Peter Dinklage in an obvious jab at David Lynch. Except, of course, Lynch’s intuitive surrealism is what makes him a genius.

French art house provocateur Catherine Breillat, on the other hand, probably doesn’t deserve the genius label. At her finest she’s an intrepid chronicler of pre-adult sexuality; at her worst she’s a timid intellectual spicing simplistic pronouncements on bedroom power games with épater les bourgeois leftovers. But whatever the verdict on her career, Breillat’s latest, a loose adaptation of Charles Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” proves surrealist fantasy beyond her reach.

In Breillat’s telling of the legend, the titular princess—here named Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou)—is put to sleep for a century by a trio of fairies to protect her from the black magic of a cackling witch. Largely comprised of Anastasia’s dreamscapes, The Sleeping Beauty throws out everything but the kitsch-en sink—albinos, cripples, giants and gypsies—to ornament its childhood psychodrama. Naturally, a dwarf shows up.

Unlike Lynch, Breillat remains too cerebral to evocatively embrace fancy, a problem that never plagued the sober yet consequently much more dream-like Bluebeard, the predecessor to Beauty in a trilogy of celluloid fairy tales. Much of the cutesy, anachronistic Renaissance-era set design of Beauty (Joy Division grafitti appears in one scene; a diminutive train putters through several others) goes for naught as wooden actors recite clunky dialogue in front of it. Breillat steals clock and coffin-bed imagery from Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence, but leaves behind that film’s mystery and layered connotations. At points Anastasia reads the dictionary definition of words like “hermaphrodite” and “myth,” not to highlight her entrance into culture so much as to highlight the film’s themes and motifs through pure didacticism.

More exasperating is Breillat’s conception of pre-adolescence. “In my experience, young girls never want to be married,” Breillat explains in the recent issue of Cineaste. “Their first desire is to be.” An intriguing, if vague notion, but then why does Anastasia spend the vast majority of her slumber chasing after Peter (Kérian Mayan), the temporary brother figure whisked away to pubescence by a Snow Queen (Romane Portail) straight out of Hans Christian Andersen? Aged only ten years upon awakening in order to demonstrate Beauty‘s baseless claim that the intervening decade is, for young girls, “boring time,” a teenage Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) finds her journey has merely prepared her for romantic disappointment with Johan (David Chausse), Peter’s grandson. A lesbian encounter, of course, provides sexual discovery’s flipside. Literal-minded and obvious, The Sleeping Beauty is as old-fashioned as the myths it purports to deconstruct.