07/06/11 4:00am
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07/06/2011 4:00 AM |

Not so unlike Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour, in which Charlotte Rampling takes a chimpanzee as a lover, Project Nim (opening July 8) concerns the integration of an ape into bourgeois intimate relations. In interviews over stills and footage from the experimental record and frequent news coverage, researchers recall Nim Chimpsky—the chimp they tried to teach sign language, as a test of Noam Chomsky’s theories about recursion and human grammar—as a catalyst for fracturing marriages and teacher-student couplings; he’s a son to his hippie-dippy surrogate mother and a weed-smoking bud to his Deadhead guardian.

The film is best taken as a study in anthropomorphism, as academics and New Agers try to reverse the tragedy of evolution, seeking communion with this other species by projecting onto Nim (seen variously naked and clothed in diapers, t-shirt with iron-on lettering, and houndstooth check blazer). So too, director James Marsh cuts from remembrances of Nim—described as rambunctious, affectionate, temperamental, lonely as he’s moved across sanctuary and lab—to old headshots, cuing appropriately heartwarming or heartrending music. It’s like a modified Kuleshov experiment, coaxing the viewer into finding the emotions delineated by the story arc in the facial expressions of a chimpanzee. Dramatic moments—infant Nim, wrenched from mother’s grasp with aid of tranquilizer gun—are reenacted in eerie, bleary slo-mo a-la Errol Morris.

A real Errol Morris documentary also opens this fortnight—and Tabloid also concerns fair bit of sentimental projection, devoting its final movement to subject Joyce McKinney’s love of her dog Booger, and her accounts of their practically telepathic rapport, which extends to death’s door and beyond. But then, the central “very special love story” of Tabloid is essentially anthropomorphic, too: Joyce’s obsessive, ocean-spanning love for her missionary boyfriend is, to judge from the accounts Morris assembles from her and others, a fantasy of fairytales and Americana constructed around a bland, ambivalent cipher from a strange culture (Mormonism). Joyce, who compares herself to the Narcissus (finding his lonely gaze at his own reflection poignant and romantic), is in her telling a heroine beset by heroes and villains whose every intention is directed towards her.

You can maybe see what attracted Morris to McKinney: the knowability of the other—other people, times, events, contingencies—has been his lifelong subject, even at his most interrogative, as in The Thin Blue Line. (Marsh is imitating Morris, as well, by circling his interviewees around a single, unchartable point.) “The truth is probably somewhere in between,” more than one person says in Tabloid—a Morris mantra if I’ve ever heard one. My colleague Nicolas Rapold is right, I think, to call the movie “a summary statement for Morris,” and as one of those people who, again in his words, found Standard Operating Procedure to be “insufficiently critical of [its] heated political subject,” I’m glad the filmmaker has found a more authentically mystifying topic to throw up his hands in the face of.

In honoring the supremacy—and the spectacle—of the subjective, Morris is not far from the film theorists who have compared the spectator’s relationship to the movie screen with Lacan’s mirror, through which we learn to perceive ourselves, and comprehend difference. “Perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen,” wrote Christian Metz in “The Imaginary Signifier.” Which would, I guess, make the projection booth the primordial looking-glass world from whence come the originals we reflect—however imperfectly, as Kuleshov intuited, and with however much double-projection of our own.

05/25/11 4:00am
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05/25/2011 4:00 AM |

A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1986), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s autobiographically informed film about the favorite son of a Chinese family that relocates to Taiwan after Mao’s ascension, is episodic in narrative and personal in scale, but organized structurally around a brave and surprising question: What kind of person were you at the time of your parents’ deaths? Ah-ha, Hou’s surrogate in the film (which recently screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Taiwanese survey), is a rambunctious elementary-schooler in the first hour, which climaxes with his father’s death of chronic asthma, and a lazy, cocky, somewhat Westernized teen caught up with gangs as his mother ails in the second hour. The two primary young actors are revelatory, and well-directed: Hou observes their easy athletic confidence, and catches them in isolated flashes of anguish over their acutely, barely fathomed awareness of the hopes held for their so far incomplete lives.

In one scene, teenaged Ah-ha wakes up from a wet dream, washes his shorts and, returning to bed, finds his mother, sobbing by lamplight as she writes her eldest daughter to tell her she may have cancer. It’s a great, confused moment, the interruption of a (very) private, internal daily worry with heavy, objective consequence, and it gets at the almost unbearable present tense in which relationships, even our closest and most lasting, are transacted.

One moment in time, when father is still alive: Ah-ha and his brother carry the mail in to him, and wait, standing by his desk as he, smiling silently and indulgently, cuts the stamps off the envelopes. In the living room now, albums of stamps open on the table, the boys drop their collection’s new additions into a pot to boil the glue off, then stick them to the window to dry. As water drips off, droplets carving trails in the steamy glass over their shoulders, Hou cuts in for a close-up of the stamps stuck to the window—and then, after a few slow seconds, another cut: Ah-ha’s class, in uniforms and in rows, facing down a long shot and holding in their fidgets (while schoolmates run past on the very edge of the frame), waiting for the click of their class photo.

This single, simple edit is astonishing in its breadth, and seems to me to be one of those glimmers of pure clarity when a movie nods as if to say: Yes. Of course. This is why we’re here, you and I, because this is 
what we can do.

Hou moves from an idle afternoon, defined by elusive sense memory and then, literally, evaporating, to the official record of a year of childhood—the picture meant, somehow, to fix all these disposable impressions in time, like stamps in an album, impossibly evocative. In a movie captivated by the ephemeral—the way Ah-ha hops over his fence into his yard; games of marbles and baseball; gang disputes over obscure fights; a walk picking guavas with granny; the way certain locations, like the house and the courtyard and the gate and the tree across the road, change over time—the cut from a couple of stamps drying out on a fogged-up window, to school picture day, puts the fleeting and the impressionistic next to the collective and definitive, exposing the inner workings of remembering and describing the good fight against forgetting that all movies fight—and maybe this one especially. When the camera’s shutter finally opens and shuts on Ah-ha’s class, Hou inserts a white-bordered, sepia-faded class photo. But the students are standing in front of trees, not their school—it isn’t the photo his cast was posing for. Is it Hou’s own?

04/27/11 4:00am
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04/27/2011 4:00 AM |

I’d never presume to say how the period British miniseries became the go-to cultural comfort food for so many women of my generation, but Mr. Darcy’s Oscar acceptance speech from earlier in the year may offer some clues, particularly the part about “impulses I have to tend to backstage.”Behind the Green Baize Door was, at one point, to be the title of Upstairs, Downstairs, the 70s ITV show revived last winter by the BBC for a three-episode run just concluded here on PBS’s Masterpiece, beloved importers of the original; the point, I think, of these closed doors and drawn stage curtains is that sumptuous formality seems to imply a core of catharsis.

The cast of this new Upstairs, Downstairs includes one returning member, Jean Marsh, who created the show with Eileen Atkins, finally appearing on the show in a dowager battle-axe role to rival her Gosford Park co-star Maggie Smith’s turn on ITV and Masterpiece‘s recent Downton Abbey, from Gosford Park‘s screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey (as well as, say, Mad Men) appeal to our tendency to fetishize a time and place by constantly threatening us with its disappearance. The gathering storms of world war hover over both shows—WWI for Downton, WWII for Downstairs (and the prospect of a defunded PBS troubles both). And the English class system is upended as spoiled youngest daughters cavort with politically active chauffeurs, though that subplot’s more realistic in Upstairs, Downstairs, which gratifyingly acknowledges the fashionable Fascism of much of the prewar upperclass (including some quarters of the royal family, a point glossed over in Colin Firth’s performance-anxiety movie).

If Downton Abbey is the superior show of the two—and it most certainly is, even Laura Linney’s intros for the PBS broadcasts are better, less strident—it’s not just because the new Upstairs, Downstairs compresses more melodrama into a smaller cast and less than half the running time. Julian Fellowes is far savvier than the new Upstairs, Downstairs team about the rules of the game that have developed since the original series. The premise of Downton Abbey is predicated upon the arrival of an interloper—the jokes that result, about the codified manners of the manor-born as seen from outside, flatter our familiarity with the genre, which gives Fellowes the cover he needs to tend to our backstage impulses. Downton Abbey‘s upper lip is perpetually a-tremble with anguished confessions, shrieky monologues, tearful hugs, and exquisite romantic masochism on the level of Barbara Stanwyck’s guilt-stricken self-abnegations in The Lady Eve or Remember the Night—more than Upstairs, Downstairs, with its naked appeals to historical and nostalgic resonance, Downton Abbey is a perfect mechanism of tension and release.

03/16/11 4:00am
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03/16/2011 4:00 AM |

Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, released this past weekend, has the smoothed-over color palette of a Thomas Kinkade painting and dialogue with a tween’s barely sustained notion of Romantic diction. But worse still: the big bad wolf isn’t sexy. It’s actually a CGI monster with a pixilated voice, whose human identity, when climactically revealed, laughably neuters any potential appeal. As director of the first Twilight movie, it was Hardwicke’s job to make alluring beasties reassuringly cuddly; here, she withholds even the sensitive bad-boy shtick until the very end—the movie plays like an extended purity test, with Amanda Seyfried’s Red distraught by the possibility of an animal within one of her Abercrombie-pretty love interests, and virtuously guilt-stricken by the wolf’s interest in her. What big eyes Seyfried has, but there’s no avidity permitted—when provocatively given the red-stained fabric swath as a wedding present, she laments that she feels “sold”—no affinity with the bloodthirsty, lunar-cyclical werewolf.

Filmgoers hoping to have a little fun with feminist semiotics are directed instead to Neil Jordan’s committed, feverish 1984 adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves.” In the story, a girl, just begun her own bloody lunar cycle, sets out through the woods, secure in her innocence, to grandmother’s house, bartering with a young man over a kiss on the way; when she arrives, discovering the boy transformed, granny dead, and the pack howling outside, she throws her Red Riding Hood (“the colour of poppies, the color of sacrifices, the colour of her menses”) on the fire with the rest of her clothes.

As for the wolf, Carter writes, with his anguished cries, “grace could not come to the wolf from its own despair, only through some external mediator, so that, sometimes, the beast will look as if he half welcomes the knife that dispatches him.”

The complicity of transgression—violation as its own type of contract—is one risky, suggestive subject of Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” the title story in the 1979 collection of retold fairytales which also includes “Company of Wolves.” In “Bloody Chamber,” Carter’s update of the Bluebeard myth, the child bride of the richest man in France opens the forbidden door, behind which are her murdered predecessors, because her deflowerment—the title has more than one meaning, you guys—has implanted with her a “dark newborn curiosity.”

Carter was working on a Jane Eyre sequel when she died, and Charlotte Brontë has Jane liken Thornfield to Bluebeard’s castle at one point, which is perfect for reasons that go beyond foreshadowing. Rochester, too, fosters in Jane a sense of curiosity; their romance is epic not just because it transcends obstacles or busts through social taboos (though the latter is important), but because the two interest each other so intensely. Jane’s often-censured desire for real experience, which Brontë’s prose renders in Jane’s vivid, precise observations of self and others, finds fulfillment in their discourse.

In Cary Joji Fukunaga’s faithful new version of Jane Eyre, also out last Friday, Rochester’s first appearance is prefigured by a storybook ghoul, and announced by the fiendish nostrils of a rearing black horse—here be danger, but also stimulation. Mia Wasikowska’s Jane, with her rather taut face, conveys depths of seriousness and thoughtfulness, and as Rochester, Michael Fassbender’s scowly, laser-focused gaze seems to demand that its object reward such close scrutiny. This new Jane Eyre ends exactly as “Company of Wolves” does, with the young woman risking all to find herself safe “between the paws of the tender wolf.”

02/16/11 3:00am
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02/16/2011 3:00 AM |

Subtext-spotting is a fun parlor game and one of the pleasures of this profession, but in An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (out March 15 from the New Press), senior Village Voice critic J. Hoberman attempts something far more comprehensive (from which I’ve already begun cherrypicking). In this “prequel” to 2003’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, Hoberman stacks newspaper clippings, FBI files and production memos from the era of the Red Menace alongside word of atomic tests and geopolitical rumblings, juxtaposed with cinematic fantasies of war with the redskins and invaders from the red planet. Writing in sardonically breathless present tense, with a self-referential critical vocabulary, he puts the reader on red-alert, alive to cinema and culture’s push-pull authorship of American archetype. It’s an encyclopedic riff, and you can play along when BAM screens key films from the book February 18-24, and Mondays in March.

An Army of Phantoms begins during World War II, as the Daily Worker heralds Warner Bros’s Mission to Moscow: “I’m intrigued by the fact,” Hoberman told me over email last week, “that Hollywood’s wartime height was also the period when American communists enjoyed maximum influence—the industry and the movement declined together, although not in the same way.” The fall of the American Left parallels TV’s leveling of the Hollywood monolith—the movies becoming, Hoberman notes, just another segment of what was about to be called “the media.” The HUAC neutralizes Hollywood’s consciousness-raising New Dealers and Reds, and after Korea the movies read as manifestations of national fads in an economic climate where even six-year-olds are avid consumers (of Davy Crockett coonskin caps, for one). The book’s structure traces a parallel arc, its initial focus on production histories and obsessive name-naming shifting to more cultural noise: following the cults of McCarthy and Monroe, James Dean and Elvis, the book ends with guilty lefty apostate Elia Kazan’s celebrity-culture cassandriad, A Face in the Crowd, though Hoberman sees “a somewhat optimistic trajectory,” suggesting to me that “the ‘cultural noise’ of 1956 set the stage for the development of a new left,” with which The Dream Life picks up.

At BAM, Hoberman picks personal favorites and curios from Army of Phantoms‘s many case studies, from the iconic—Don Siegel’s rivetingly economical doubled-edged allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers—to the somehow emblematic: will a flood of partisans drown out catcalls when The Fountainhead screens in NYC for the first time in years? “Americans are suckers for the cult of individual action,” Hoberman said by way of explaining the subversiveness of leering, on-the-make noir antiheroes like Ralph Meeker in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or Richard Widmark in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. In Army of Phantoms, Widmark’s self-interest even in matters of atomic security is cast as an affront to a populace frequently inspired by John Wayne’s go-it-alone cavalry officers and G-Men, who take up the barely comprehensible burdens of the free world. The word “mobilized” appears frequently in the book, but, Hoberman explained, “You don’t necessarily inspire mobilization by showing a mobilized populace. It has more to do with constructing heroic and/or inspirational movie star leaders”—like the public health official, also played by Widmark, suppressing contagion and the press in Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (also noteworthy for its jazzy open-air cinematography, on location in New Orleans).

An Army of Phantoms‘s prologue, director William Wellman and superproducer Dore Schary’s 1950 The Next Voice You Hear, must, ironically, be seen to be believed: oozing presumption from its scripture-citing opening credits, the film concerns God, who interrupts the regularly scheduled broadcasting on the radio—not, Hoberman notes, the television—for six consecutive nights, on all stations, in all languages. The Word is filtered, naturally, through the perspective of the Smith family, of Suburbia, USA, whose financial and emotional stresses are eased by the seemingly personal reassurance of the divine, as the film offers a thoroughly vague, wildly ambitious synecdoche for the postwar world order.

Pregnant mother Mary is played, virginally, by tremulous Nancy Davis, who had just met her future husband: Ronald Reagan. Hoberman told me that nostalgia (“as we know it, a post-60s formulation”) and “TV and MTV” will face off in The Dream Life‘s sequel, currently in production and titled Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy—a rise which climaxed just as Hoberman began reviewing regularly for the Voice. “Having Reagan in or recently out of the White House,” he said, “was, from a cine-historical point of view, an incalculable gift.”

01/19/11 4:00am
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01/19/2011 4:00 AM |

In a recent blog post on lessons learned coordinating online distribution for PBS’s Independent Lens documentary series, Davin Hutchins case-studied the modest fest-circuit hit The Parking Lot Movie‘s success on the iTunes movie store, concluding that “making a film available digitally when it is most visible elsewhere” is crucial for reaching an audience. Which certainly feels true: if you’re the kind of person who eagerly scours festival reviews, you’ve surely noticed that even Cannes excitement tends to dissipate in the time it takes a movie to reach you—assuming, of course, it ever does, which is far from a sure thing even if you live in New York.
Using digital and cable on-demand to instantly gratify the whims of people who read film reviews online is now easier than ever, for reasons beyond the technological ones. Anti-trust law forced the old Hollywood studios to divest themselves of their theater chains, which seems quaint in today’s conglomerated mediasphere, when new-media companies can acquire (or, in Mark Cuban’s case, produce) relatively inexpensive films to distribute across platforms already huddled under the same corporate umbrella.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 20-30, in Utah—check for reports from our correspondent on the ground—and, in more limited form, in your living room, through the magic of 21st-century vertical integration. Sundance Selects is, among other things, a movies-on-demand channel owned by Cablevision subsidiary Rainbow Media, which also owns the IFC Channel, IFC Films, the IFC Center, and IFC’s on-demand services. Sundance Selects’s “Direct from Sundance” is a five-pack of 2011 Sundance films available on-demand for a 30-day window timed to their festival premieres, the better to ride out Park City buzz; it’s programmed by festival and IFC Films execs, who often also buy theatrical rights—like in the case of Kaboom, from Sundance-enabled 90s indie boom bad boy Gregg Araki, which opens at IFC Center on Sundance’s closing weekend, and which Ben Strong reviews in this issue.

Also on the Direct from Sundance roster are These Amazing Shadows, a documentary saluting the National Film Registry, and Septien, a regional drama from Michael Tully, also an active indie-scene blogger. Another even more familiar festival-circuit face, Joe Swanberg, directsUncle Kent, his first film at Sundance, though he’s no stranger to VOD. A TV screen (or monitor) may be where his films play best, and that’s not (just) a comment on his video-diary cinematography. Swanberg, who’s worked on web series in addition to features, has familiar collaborators (animator “Uncle Kent” is the animator and Swanberg regular Kent Osborne) play out a roster of demographically apropos concerns (here, the loneliness of the aging hipster and the narcissism, or self-abnegation, of desire), mediated by au-courant technologies (in late 2010, Chatroulette, iPhoto and craigslist’s adult services). His on-point scenes, excavated by brisk editing from loosely directed improv and commented on with either Casio crunch or Charlie Brown loser piano, feel like endless variations on the same theme, even if those variations are sometimes uncomfortably familiar, hilariously awkward or dick-pic “authentic” (or, as is more usual for Swanberg, a little bit of all three, as a passive-aggressive threesome in Uncle Kent is, while also being, also usual for Swanberg, no more or less necessary than anything else in the movie).

And lastly, there’s Australian director Brendan Fletcher’s feature debut Mad Bastards, which, with its multigenerational neck-tattoo machismo and moody, musical negative space, initially bares a recommended-if-you-like resemblance to last year’s breakthrough hits from his countrymen in the Blue Tongue collective, though with the always-nearby Outback’s vision-quest void, more than hallowed genre structures, providing the looming atmosphere. But the film, derived from interviews with cast members and other members of northwest Australia’s Aboriginal communities, emerges as a break-the-cycle plea made resounding by characters as reticent as the editing is taut. Worth your $5.99, if you’re channel-surfing 

12/22/10 11:30am
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12/22/2010 11:30 AM |

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, adapted from the novel by Charles Portis, is a movie about a fourteen-year-old girl who hires a US Marshal to track the man who slew her pa. Mattie Ross, biblically precise and financially righteous, is a singular figure, but in tagging along with Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for a rousing Western adventure she’s replaying a wish-fulfilment fantasy at least as old as Treasure Island—though it was even more fantastical in the 1969 film of True Grit, when an aging John Wayne played the cuddly geezer, drunk and curmudgeonly but ultimately admiring of the kid’s moxie, and fiercely protective of her person. Three years later, Wayne starred as the gruff mentor for not quite a dozen peach-fuzz cattle hands in The Cowboys, and lunched with a couple hundred young contest winners in a promotional outreach. The Duke, soon to follow Hollywood’s studio system into the sunset, bridged the generation gap by refashioning himself as a real-life Happy Meal toy.

Both True Grits belong to the bizarre heterogeneous subgenre of movies in which kids play action hero alongside the validating presence of an authentic movie star. Sometimes the action-figure metaphor is literal, as in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when Arnold’s silvery-cool robo-killer of the first movie is transformed into a programmable friend for a thirteen-year-old John Connor. (Presumably the film takes place in 1995 because a nine-year-old Connor would have been, like, babyish.) These are ostensibly grown-up movies; more targeted children’s entertainments are free to be more explicit about the fantasy they’re appealing to (my generation’s circulated Chuck Norris Facts may be a continuation of a friendship dating back to Sidekicks).

I’ll circle back again to the action figure metaphor, because the tied-in marketing aspect is apposite. In some ways these movies are as transactional as Mattie’s agreement with Rooster: the exponential rise in allowance during the postwar years essentially handed the keys to the culture over to an age bracket that has yet to surrender them. In flattering children with fantasies of narrative agency, the movies are well-positioned to profit from their very real financial agency.

And fantasies of agency are what the movies do best—though Winter’s Bone, from earlier this year, was interesting for how hard Jennifer Lawrence’s similarly fatherless teen had to work to gain entry into the neo-noir underworld populated by her older relatives, like moving up from the kids’ table (with John Hawkes’s Uncle Teardrop a more reluctant sponsor than Rooster Cogburn).

Opening the same day as True Grit is another movie in which a tween girl has a movie star at her personal disposal—although Somewhere is far more ambivalent about the rewards of such an arrangement. In Sofia Coppola’s film, the trappings of Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorff) celebrity-room service, foreign sojourns, helicopter rides-are thrilling but also alienating for his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). (The babes, meanwhile, are unfairly matched rivals.) Shuttled between flashbulb-blinded parents, Cleo’s a far cry from the self-sufficient Mattie, who dictates her own terms for living arrangements and relationships: father-figure Rooster ends up buried in her family plot. (Not entirely dissimilarly, Somewhere ends on a moment of emotional reciprocity, itself a plaintive bit of wish-fulfilment.) You start to remember why boys and girls might be receptive to movies which confirm their feeling of being older than the world treats them. And wonder how much it ever changes.

11/10/10 4:00am
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11/10/2010 4:00 AM |

In Tiny Furniture, New York-native writer-director Lean Dunham, a 2008 Oberlin grad and YouTube video artist whose mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons, plays New York-native Aura, a recent Oberlin grad and YouTube video artist whose mother is a photographer (played by Laurie Simmons). Aura’s growing pains are witty (on the strength of the film Dunham is currently working on an HBO pilot with producer Judd Apatow), and so demographically acute that some have mistaken the film as merely “relatable,” when a better word would be “resonant.”

After initially taking the title of the movie more or less for granted I started thinking that Tiny Furniture is interesting and telling—the reference to your (and Aura’s) mother’s distinctive photography perhaps suggests that this is a movie that’s specifically about a young woman struggling to find her artistic voice, at least as much as it’s about more general millennial quarterlife angst or somesuch. Or perhaps the artistic and personal aren’t even that separate from one another?

That’s an aspect of the film that doesn’t get very much play but is very present. Aura knows she wants to be a creator (for lack of a better word) but isn’t yet sure what to create. Her search may superficially be for a boyfriend or for a job, but actual satisfaction will only come with making something that does more than garner a few embarrassing Youtube comments.

Somewhat pursuant to the above, the cinematography, which is widescreen and compositionally assured, seems a statement that you the filmmaker have a better handle than Aura does on how to transmute experience into art—what kind of ideas did you have going in about how the film would look?

I had a few images that I’d carried with me since the outlining phase, but I was mostly just excited to collaborate with Jody Lee Lipes, whose work as a filmmaker and DP had really captured my fancy at SXSW 2009. Jody has a very subtle but somewhat subversive style—he’s rather coverage-averse (or maybe a better word is sparing) which I love because it leaves a lot of room for performance, for natural hiccups and pauses, something that you rarely see in comedies. He introduced the widescreen concept, and also encouraged a lighting approach that really mimicked the feeling of being in the space where we shot, rather than turning life punchy colors. I also knew I wanted the film’s look to have some kind of relationship to the work my real/movie mother makes, which Jody understood immediately and almost wordlessly.

In a piece you wrote on web video series for The L’s website in 2008 (I was just looking back at it, it still seems pretty salient), you observed the freedom implicit in creating for a smaller audience, while also noting that “the fact that so many web shows center on socially awkward, web-dependent hipsters is just evidence that content creators are keenly aware of their core audience.” Does Tiny Furniture also have a core audience that you’re aware of?

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the wide range of people who have responded positively. I expected it to fall squarely into the “women’s interest” zone or maybe just the “women-my-age-with-similar-issues-interest” zone. But the intergenerational relationships have resonated with sort of a motley crew.

Are there any unique logistical challenges when directing oneself in a sex scene?

Jody had to be frank and tell me that a blow job I simulated looked junky. I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.

10/27/10 4:00am
10/27/2010 4:00 AM |


The most significant difference between Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Robert Bloch’s 1959 source novel: Norman Bates is fat in the book, skinny in the movie. Anthony Perkins is boyish, nervous, incredibly sympathetic initially: mumbling, avoiding eye contact, nibbling candy, darting around the Bates Motel in little hop-steps that must have cracked the crew up every time.
Psycho, playing at Film Forum over the Halloweekend to coincide with the release of a 50th anniversary Blu-Ray disc, must be seen on the big screen, if only for the faint but unmistakable fair, downy hair on Janet Leigh’s forearms, revealed in harsh, even light by cinematographer John L. Russell. (A professor once pointed out, with Hitchcockian levels of satisfied excitement at a meaning decoded, that Psycho begins with the camera peeking in on Leigh, in a cheap hotel room, in a state of undress—making us in the audience not so different from Norman Bates, really.) It’s a moment of tawdry, unglamorous intimacy—what you’d actually see if you peeked in on a young woman in her underwear, casually postcoital on a hot day.

Bloch’s book is a pulpy blend of lurid psychosexual gore and workmanlike prose; the genius of Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano’s very faithful adaptation is how it tweaks Bloch’s banalities. Made cheaply with a crew, including Russell, from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the film is initially televisual in the dull docudrama style of the time, opening with a halting pan across a bland b&w cityscape and a flat-fonted dateline.

But Russell’s lighting becomes gradually more expressionist, and conversational clichés like “A boy’s best friend is his mother” and “Mother… isn’t quite herself today” (neither from the book) become exquisitely banal. They’re agreeable facades, like the ones Hitchcock builds up out of Perkins’s such-a-nice-boy stammer and Leigh’s little blond hairs, obscuring sinister double meanings—coded in-jokes referencing a conspiracy the repeat viewer is privy too.

The shower scene is so famous it fogs over Psycho‘s real twist, making it one of the few classic turns it’s still possible to take blind. Fifty years on, how electrifying it remains—but what a funny movie Psycho becomes on return trips, as funny as Bloch’s first chapter, with His Mother’s Voice compared to the beat of an Inca drum made from the stretched skin of the dead.

Mark Asch


Psycho II may be smothered by its more-classic-than-classic predecessor, but that’s almost an advantage: one of the movie’s chief pleasures is that, with the old sets-and-stars on display in brazen Technicolor, watching it feels like crawling into an old favorite and poking around.

Perkins reprises his role as Bates, released from the nuthouse to the consternation of Vera Miles, still playing victim-kin. She repudiates rehabilitation and spends the film conspiring to re-derange the motelier, inundating him with messages from his “mother”.

Oh, but there’s a twist; Psycho II fashions a knotty mystery, but also an engaging social critique about how unforgiving conservatives are themselves the real psychos. And, how America creates its own enemies.

It’s the best-scripted sequel, but its follow-up proves the most ably directed. Perkins himself helms Psycho III, flaunting visual flair while crafting a Vertigo homage (wrong Hitchcock movie, Tony!). Would that Perkins’ élan were enough. While considering the series’ central theme—can crazy people become sane?—screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue aims to conflate psychosexual disturbances with spiritual ones, to give Bates’ saga a religious parallel. He fails.

But if you want to talk about bad writing, there’s Psycho IV, in which Perkins actually says, “I knew a pain I could only call ‘soul cancer.’” This prequel adopts a slick 90s aesthetic, like Forrest Gump via Stephen King—fitting as Mick Garris, King’s principal adaptor, holds the reins. With larger-than-life symbols, he fuses Gothically Oedipal melodrama with the Joan Crawford mythos; oh, and there’s an occasional slasher sequence, too. Garris evinces high-grade professionalism, but his comic-book approximations of real emotions—like desire, madness and murderlust—feel empty. Hitchcock this most certainly ain’t.

Henry Stewart

10/13/10 4:00am
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10/13/2010 4:00 AM |

Reichert, former distributor at Magnolia and cofounder of beloved online film journal Reverse Shot, moves into filmmaking with a snappy documentary (opening October 15) about how districts are divvyed up to preserve political power.

Why, how, did redistricting reform become the subject of your first film?

Throughout most of my time working in distribution, I’d had the idea in my head that I wanted to make a move to filmmaking at some point. I think if you asked most of the people who know me well they would have expected a first film from me to run about four hours, feature long takes, temps mort, maybe a wurlitzer score. If I had to do it again, I’m not sure I would pick gerrymandering as a topic to lead off with—it was tremendously difficult to conceptualize and execute and I might have done it better a few films in. That said, more often than not our subjects pick us. Once I got past a base-level understanding of redistricting and started thinking about it in terms of this entire invisible world of shifting lines impacting representation and changing history, I became really obsessed with finding a way to tell that story.

How much did the census have to do with it?

I’d love to say we planned all along to have the film out right before the last election preceding the census, but to be totally honest, if we’d gotten the money to make the film sooner, we would have.  Thank goodness for horrible financing conditions.  

How much did you know about gerrymandering going into this?

Almost nothing.  nd for the first few years of research, my thinking about it was really naive. I’d first heard of the term when that bunch of Texas Democrats fled the state in buses (while watching Catch Me If You Can, naturally) and hid out in a motel in Ardmore, Oklahoma and for a while the film was going to be mostly about that incident. It took a few years of really mulling the issues, reading deep into the scholarship—not just about redistricting specifically, but representation theory, democratic practice, demographics—before things clicked and I realized we couldn’t make a movie about Texas and capture anything like the sweep and scope of the problem. Someone told me along the way that every state has a horror story, and it’s totally true; we could have swapped out all of the stories in the film for a completely different set and still filled a feature with bizarre anecdotes and characters.  

At the end of the film you direct viewers to a website,, that suggests some concrete principles for redistricting reform, but briefly, I wonder if you can suggest what we ought to think of as constituting a good redistricting process, and a good district.

It’s funny, the simple “action” cards from the last minute of the film have inspired more controversy than many of the arguments made in the preceding 76 minutes. Some folks are mad about being “hectored,” others want me to spell out exactly how you fix the system down to the details. What we’ve actually laid out in those cards—”There is no silver bullet.” “Know your district.” “Fight the Maps.” “End Gerrymandering.”—is about as robust a prescription I felt comfortable making in a film dealing with an issue in which there is literally no solution. There will never be a plan that satisfies everyone and there will never be a process that everyone feels included in. But that’s actually ok. There’s a certain degree of messiness we should embrace in democracy—we chose to have this system so we could have the freedom to be messy.

That said, there are a few things we can do to make the whole machine run a little more smoothly. First: get more people involved. “Know your district” isn’t just some platitude that’d look good on a T-shirt; I believe that if every viewer left the theater and used the tool at to see the contours of their assembly district, they’d have a hell of a lot of questions. And if they knew when and where they could go testify about ways in which the maps don’t accurately reflect their personal experience of “community,” I’d hope they’d take that opportunity. We made the film mostly about local stories in small districts for this reason—so that we could inspire folks to feel this is something tangible, something that affects them, something that is likely happening where they live.