Monday, October 26, 2015

Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015)

Shirley Clarke's 1967 Portrait of Jason is not above criticism. The problems begin with the very notion that Clarke owns her portrait of Jason Holliday, a black hustler/entertainer who tells stories, rambles on, and ultimately breaks down underneath Clarke's boom mic. As with Grey Gardens, Portrait of Jason reveals the exploitative potential of cinéma vérité as the fly-on-the-wall camera appropriates a life wholesale for someone else's benefit. But vérité's unwavering regard cannot bleed all agency from the subjects before it (which holds for Grey Gardens as well) and thus the question of exploitation becomes much more complex. Jason and Shirley fails to see that complexity and results in 70 minutes of weak film criticism.

A docudrama imagining the circumstances surrounding the creation of Portrait of Jason, Jason and Shirley casts Shirley Clarke (Sarah Schulman) as the villain of the piece. She frets between takes that Jason's (Jack Waters) unruffled demeanor and constant laughter isn't giving her the vérité. So she enlists Jason's close friend, actor Carl Lee (Orran Farmer), to bait Jason and reduce him to tears which itself is revealed in a "gotcha" last shot to be just another act on Jason's part. As Winter and Waters made clear in a Q&A at MOMA last week, their Jason says "no" to Shirley Jason and has more agency in organizing his representation. In short, Jason and Shirley is on a truth-telling mission to correct the shortcomings of Portrait of Jason.

But it's naive to assume that Clarke viewed the majority of her footage as a vérité failure. The ultimate truth Portrait of Jason attests to is the often disingenuous facework we all perform in confrontation/collaboration with the public sphere whether walking down the street and holding forth in front of a camera. Furthermore, several of Holliday's monologues are a form of no-telling, especially in his accounts of working as a maid for various rich white women. Even if we are to assume that Portrait of Jason is pure exploitation, the very fact that a black man breaks the fourth wall and talks at you for close to two hours offers a rare cinematic experience, one that complicates any charge of exploitation. There are no shot-reverse shots or eyeline matches in Portrait of Jason. But Jason and Shirley features plenty of them. So now Jason is sutured into a narrative space triangulated by a homophobic cameraman, a nervous twink doing sound, and an ever-scheming Shirley, all white. And then halfway through, black characters arrive to get Jason high or make him cry. By attaching Jason Holliday so absolutely to that historic day (apart from some awkward attempts to ventilate the story with brief vignettes from Holliday's past), Jason and Shirley winds up reproducing the perceived inequities of Portrait of Jason (a fate avoided by the HBO augmentation of Grey Gardens).

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015)

As one of the few lone wolf auteurs left in Hollywood (although he's apparently on sabbatical from directing), Steven Soderbergh infused the wieners and buns show Magic Mike (2012) with a New Hollywood respectability in defiance of the increased franchising of mainstream cinema.  But Hollywood can't leave a hit alone so now Magic Mike is itself another franchise. And where the first one aspired to Scorsese and Altman, Magic Mike XXL (directed by Gregory Jacobs although some already believe Soderbergh moved beyond his DP and editor roles here into directing some, if not many, scenes) harkens back to the "let's put on a show" corniness of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney franchise. It's Bring It On to Magic Mike's The Break-Up (with the chronology reversed) although Bring It On's skin deep encounter with racism feels weightier. With nary of buttcheek in sight (even during the stripping scenes), Magic Mike XXL is closer to High School Musical. For real.

Certainly, the meditations on our hideous economic climate remain. Mike (Channing Tatum, still gloriously mumbling) can't afford insurance for the one employee in his wobbly furniture business. With not much to lose, he joins the stripper troupe again and the first half an hour gets the respectability out of the way, namely, in the form of the male entertainers wondering about employment opportunities once the spare tires start to show. But the myriad strip routines/de facto musical numbers overwhelm the narrative such that their worries are quickly forgotten and never tied up or even addressed by the rushed ending.

That doesn't mean the film is structureless, though. The troupe visits three othered communities (circles of hell?) for a sort of extended training session that allows them to hone their routine before a climactic male dancer convention. So the story moves episodically from an unconvincing and truncated stopover at a gay bar (with Vicky Vox as emcee) through a gothic mansion where black women shower dollar bills on black strippers (including an impressive Michael Strahan) and Childish Gambino (serenading a lucky gal with his shirt unbuttoned) to a less gothic mansion where a pack of cougars led by Andie MacDowell welcome the troupe as prey.

The structure normalizes the predominately white and heterosexual younger audience at the convention. And anyone expecting cause and effect to guide you through a story should stay home. But I unreservedly recommend it to any music and/or musicals fans. This is the kind of mainstream product we get in an era when spontaneous outbursts of song are still relatively verboten and Magic Mike XXL maintains a sugar high worthy of Strike Up the Band or Summer Stock. Joe Manganiello's S/M gymnastics during NIN's "Closer" are astonishing (poor guy even tore a bicep on take one). The iPic theater where I caught the film last night had a remarkable sound system and I shall not soon forget the electro-high-hat rattling behind us and intensifying the gyrations. Tatum and Stephen Boss transform the Marx Brothers' mirror gag from Duck Soup into a porny fantasia. And yet it's all glossed over with an "aw shucks" innocence which suggests the classical era of Hollywood has never been over. Even the end credits breeze by like it's 1965 (1935?). I haven't been so giddy in a movie theatre since, well, Bring It On.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hard drive recovery screenings

A computer genius friend managed to recover most of the files from a dying hard drive, including more than 1,500 movies. So in an effort to assuage my guilt over digital hoarding, I figured I should start, ya know, watching the damn things. And predictably, I was soon knee-deep in sewage:

The Scarlett O'Hara War (John Erman, 1980)
Dramatically inert TV movie recounting the mania around the search for the actress who would play Scarlett O'Hara. Since most of the narrative threads are abandoned (e.g., a fight with the Hays Office over the word "damn"), the viewer must stay awake by judging the impersonations. The Tallulah Bankhead and Clark Gable are cartoon good. Sharon Gless looks uncomfortable as Carole Lombard.
And did you know someone (Barrie Youngfellow[?]) portrayed Joan Crawford a year before Faye Dunaway's world historic performance in Mommie Dearest? It's...not even close.
But at least one holdout from the classical era was on hand to lend the proceedings a smidgen of non-ridiculousness.

The Yesterday Machine (Russ Marker, 1963)
After decades reading both, I've just recently realized how similar Michael J. Weldon and Chuck Eddy are as consumer guides. Simply by cataloging the lunacy of, oh, The Jimmy Castor Bunch: Phase Two or The Beast of Yucca Flats, their reviews wind up far more entertaining than the albums/films themselves, especially this $1.95 turkey. Something about a mad Nazi scientist with a time machine capable of bringing ancient Egyptian and Civil War soldiers to the present. Nearly 15 minutes of screen time is taken up with a dreary explanation of the device. One of the last films of poor Tim Holt, far, far away from his performance as Georgie, my favorite character in The Magnificent Ambersons. Nominated for both "The Worst Performance as a Nazi Mad Scientist" and "The Worst Rock 'n' Roll Lyrics in Movie History" in the Medved's Son of Golden Turkey Awards.
The Climax (George Waggner, 1944)
Forgettable Phantom of the Opera copy with Boris Karloff as a soprano-tormenting madman. The only saving graces are gorgeous Technicolor, florid set design, and the beauty of Turhan Bey here in a scene palming off Joseph Cotten's bored program shredding in Citizen Kane.
Look in Any Window (William Alland, 1961)
Much the best of this sorry lot, Look in Any Window stars Paul Anka as a disaffected teen Peeping Tom in a creepy mask.
And what he peeps in on is the hypocrisy of the suburbs: alcoholism, infidelity, distant fathers. So who's the real pervert here, right? More corny than trashy, it nevertheless has a scrappy energy to it, carried by Anka's unprincipled, mush-mouthed performance. He also sings the moody title tune which recalls Louis Jordan's "Azure Te," one of the jump blues innovator's more sedate moments.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Item: Flowers of Shanghai better than Mad Max: Fury Road!

Hey I didn't plan to watch Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998) mere moments before I believed the hype and took in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Blame the exigencies of teaching Flowers today for clouding my reception of Mad Max last night. But even if I hadn't bathed in Hou's masterpiece yet again, Miller's reboot still would've left me pondering Kracauer's "Boredom" (pdf here) and this terrific IMDb comment by one amirdash1 on Hou's Café Lumière (which I've pumped before but since learned permalink):

"You know how sometimes you see a film so big and full and immersing that by the time it ends you feel kinda empty (for most people it's the Lord of the rings or Matrix or Star wars type of films)? well, [Café Lumière] is so empty that in the end, it makes you you feel full. I remember feeling more refreshed and alive after this film, than any other film i had ever seen."

Mad Max is certainly so big and full and immersing. Devoting barely any time to explaining when and where (and why) we are, Miller dunks us into the freezing bathwater of his narrative with all the patience of a Centurions cartoon. In the opening sequence, the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) seems to be conveying key story points to some sort of slave class. But he does so via microphone over a huge canyon, insuring that his speech becomes lost in the echoes. Max (Tom Hardy), a characterization of brilliant perversity, contributes little towards pushing the narrative forward. With five pages max of dialogue, much of it garbled, Max makes Ethan Edwards sound like Woody Allen. It shall join Warren Beatty's McCabe and Ralph Fiennes' Dennis Cleg (in Cronenberg's Spider) in the ranks of great mumble performances. And all the better to set off  Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a narrative agent with desire, a history, and a band of sisters who have no trouble beating down Joe's pack of pasty, perfectly chiseled goons (what, no carbs in this time/space continuum?).

But now that it's over, I'm at a loss for something to discuss. Well...that happened. More to the point, I'm left with no desire to find a way for it to resonate beyond its running time. I could praise Miller's expertise in directing action sequences. Like John Woo, he lays out the space in question before the action kicks in so we know what's at stake in all that velocity. And I could suggest that the film could've used more preposterous touches like the pasty goon dangling in front of a wall of amplifiers and playing a fire-breathing guitar in battle, a hilarious attempt to give a source to Junkie XL's chest-heaving score. But if I didn't get all that down now, I'm not sure I'd remember to tell the world about it a year from now.

In many ways, Flowers of Shanghai mangles storytelling even more, at least on initial viewing (it took Robin Wood six screenings to figure out Hou's scheme). Titles situate us in various late 19th-century brothels in the English Concession of Shanghai. But Hou does little to differentiate one Sternbergian hothouse interior from another. Important events are told not shown, sure to get lost in the endless roundelays of gossiping courtesans and their patrons. There are no cuts, only fades which fail to convey how much time has passed. Characters are difficult to tell apart. There's one point-of-view shot and one brief voice-over. The camera floats at a distance in long shots and long takes, never suturing us into the space. Our frustration at gaining any sense of firm narrative ground quickly turns into boredom. Nothing...happens.

But as Kracauer so perceptively pointed out nearly 90 years ago, boredom preserves the possibility that something genuinely new might still happen instead of a conveyor belt of new pummeling us at every corner of our lives. Watching Flowers of Shanghai may be an empty experience. But it continues to haunt. You can't shake it as you start to ponder how a Taiwanese viewer would receive this film set in China by the premier Taiwanese filmmaker. Or how a Chinese viewer would receive a film set in the English Concession of Shanghai. When Mad Max: Fury Road is over, it's over. You've had your fill and now the next new awaits.

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Saturday, May 02, 2015

I finished Middlemarch!

Reading George Eliot's Middlemarch was like being trapped in a well-appointed but claustrophobic room with an intimidatingly capacious mind for a looooooong time - in my case, many, many months. I had an easier time getting through Ulysses. The person who suggested it to me "compared it to a diamond: a pure, beautiful, brilliant thing that compels attention and admiration, but that is also somehow hard and icily cerebral. I[t] certainly never struck [him] as a warm novel." Attention and admiration it got. But I received not much pleasure in return, especially in the first half.

No doubt some of my agitation stemmed from Eliot's tough-mindedness, her disinclination to suffer fools lightly. She even says as much at the book's snootiest, if not deadliest, point: "I am less uneasy in calling attention to the existence of low people by whose interference, however little we may like it, the course of the world is very much determined. It would be well, certainly, if we could help to reduce their number, and something might perhaps be done by not lightly giving occasion to their existence." And how, pray tell, should we reduce their number? Is she getting all Raskolnikov on the minor but narratively crucial character Raffles here?

But maybe Middlemarch is supposed to remain pleasureless, like heavy metal. And like metal, maybe we're to use it to reveal the fool within, the fuckup in us all ('cept for Eliot) that we are loathe to confront but that the power of the riffs (literary and otherwise) are meant to whip into shape. The Middlemarch/metal connection reminds me of a recent exchange on ILM. Someone was whining about not wanting to start a zine to which Scott Seward (crucially, a metal expert) replied in a manner most Middlemarch-like: "duh, i'm not talking about you slackers. people with energy. and pep." Certainly, there have been times in my life when I could feel myself in Fred Vincy's "dead men's shoes" (where Idleness resides) with Mary Garth admonishing him/me for reneging on a loan guaranteed by her father Caleb. "What does it matter whether I forgive you?" says Mary, passionately, Eliot tells us. But also icily - her family will be now be in ruins. The utility of "I'm sorry" or "you're forgiven" evaporates in the need for action to make things right. I read much of Middlemarch at the gym, a locale that was holding me back, or so I was informed, from loving the novel. But in retrospect, it seemed entirely appropriate. Steel never forgives. But work hard and you'll get a six pack. And pay back that loan. And get through a 900-page behemoth.

And then you'll get rewarded in those moments where you feel as haughty and worthy as Eliot herself as when she drops a line that you muttered just yesterday about cell phones: "The bias of human nature to be slow in correspondence triumphs even over the present quickening in the general pace of things." Or when she quotes one Sir Thomas Browne to support your thesis that "back in the good ole days" dorks are forever with us: "It is the humor of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condemning the vices of their own times, by the expressions of vices in times which they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both." Or when Dorothea Brooke gives up her fortune for love, i.e., the hunky-you-just-know-it Will Ladislaw (I'd never been so elated at the formation of a heterosexual couple). Or when Eliot revels in the connectedness of the universe: "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determine by what lies outside it." Or in the very last line when Eliot finally comes down to our level and gives it up to all the fools, fuckups, and slackers: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

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Friday, May 01, 2015

So you're curious about Joan Crawford's General Electric Theater work...

Well, don't be. All three are risible attempts to generate Twilight Zone-style suspense and godawful twist endings by having characters act in ways antithetical to their nature. In "The Road to Edinburgh" (1954), Joan gives a ride to a drifter who fixed her flat tire. He confesses to her that he has just been released from prison after 17 years for murder. But he behaves like a complete psycho, becoming belligerent and obsessing on her appearance. Naturally, Joan tries everything to get away, especially when she learns that the police are on the lookout for an escaped prisoner. She does 80 to attract the police but when she's pulled over, they inform her that the man in her car couldn't be the escaped prisoner since he's just been caught! The poor innocent guy just needed a ride. He even gives her the money to pay for her speeding ticket leaving a tearful Joan to admit in voiceover, "I've never been so ashamed in my life." So he acted like a psycho...why?
In "Strange Witness" (1958), Joan and her wiry boyfriend Tom Tryon (future horror novelist and partner of gay porn icon Casey Donovan) bump off her husband (John McIntire). But the husband's blind friend stops by for a visit before the couple has time to hide the body. They manage to maneuver him around the corpse before eventually shooing him away. But later, he calls her from a police station to inform her that, oh hai, he had an operation and can see! So he pretended that he's still blind...why?
In "And One Was Loyal" (1959), Joan is an abused wife who cannot speak. A poisonous snake is planted in her husband's bed. Thinking Joan is trying to kill him, he charges at her, falls off a balcony, and dies at which point Joan can suddenly speak again. But who planted the snake? Was it Joan? Or was it the art-loving visitor who fancies her? Or how about the Malaysian house boy? Much the best of the three but the least dramatic, one hopes Newton Minor had this in mind when he deemed television a vast wasteland in 1961

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005)

Unpublished review of one of my fave records of 2005:

The few records Amadou & Mariam, “The Blind Couple of Mali,” have released stateside underscored their status as hip, globetrotting world music stars. So it’s perfectly natural that their music skipped from the Paris café to the Delta back porch. This fabulous new disc strays even further from any pure Malian genre if such a thing even exists. The title translates as “Sunday in Bamako,” the capital of Mali. But it actually sounds like Sunday all over the world. This is less a function of genre hopping as it an immersion in sounds that are indigenous to most places on earth – crowds, overheard crosstalk, police sirens, music off in the distance. Thanks for the new direction can be given to polyglot musical genius Manu Chao. His production transforms even the longest songs into off-the-cuff, ridiculously catchy snippets. Awash in French folk song, Ali Farka Toure-style blues, and mild ska pulsations and yet as bright and slick as Sheryl Crow soaking up the sun, this is one mighty fine all-night festival.

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