Down By Law

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #166: Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law.

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Jim Jarmusch knows how to shoot in black and white. I al­ways for­get this un­til I re­watch some­thing of his. I own Dead Man, and I should prob­a­bly get my hands on this film as well. Shot in New Orleans, over twen­ty years ago, its cen­tral mo­ti­va­tors are time­less. I’m start­ing to no­tice this about Criterion Collection films, for the most part the prob­lems that are cen­tral to the plots in the­se films are all of the afore­men­tioned time­less va­ri­ety. The as­pects that qual­i­fy the film for their treat­ment and give va­ri­ety to the col­lec­tion [which is slight­ly hu­mor­ous con­sid­er­ing the amount of samu­rai flicks that are present] are the dis­tinct spins that are given to some­thing as ap­par­ent­ly straight­for­ward as a pris­on es­cape film.

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JJ man­ages this by de­vot­ing a rel­a­tive­ly large amount of the film’s time to the ris­ing ac­tion, be­fore the three main char­ac­ters even ar­rive in jail. Similarly in­spired is his de­ci­sion to leave out many parts of the sto­ry that are ei­ther un­nec­es­sary or can be fig­ured out by the view­er. Normally the re­sult of this would be a terse film, but Jarmusch us­es the re­sult­ing breath­ing room to ex­am­ine the pri­vate sides of his char­ac­ters.

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This is eas­ier said than done, since John Lurie and Tom Waits pull off sul­len ret­i­cence as if it were nat­u­ral to them. Roberto Benigni acts as a foil to their mis­an­thropy, but al­so pos­es a dif­fer­ent sort of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion prob­lem. Jack [Lurie] and Zack [Waits] are too sim­i­lar in per­son­al­i­ty but dif­fer­ent in ap­pli­ca­tion to get along with each oth­er, but the un­cer­tain­ty that they hide even when alone comes through in their con­stant fid­get­ing, day-dream­ing and bick­er­ing un­til they even­tu­al­ly rec­og­nize their kin­dred spir­it. Benigni’s char­ac­ter Roberto us­es his ex­tro­ver­sion in the same de­fen­sive way that the Jack and Zack use their in­tro­ver­sion; by at­tempt­ing to make friends with every­one and be as ex­pan­sive as pos­si­ble, he tries to hide his un­ease with American cul­ture. All he re­al­ly does, just like Jack and Zack is make it ob­vi­ous that he has no idea what is go­ing on in his life.

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Their met­tles are tem­pered through the tri­als of their im­pris­on­ment and es­cape, and while they nev­er be­come close, the un­der­stand­ing they gain from one an­oth­er about life and com­pan­ion­ship re­sults in a new pur­pose for each of them. The view­er might not know what that pur­pose is, but the mes­sage is clear­ly and wry­ly brought home. We’re all tough enough to get out of what­ev­er trou­ble we man­age to get our­selves in­to.

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Criterion Essay by Luc Sante.
• Senses of Cinema ar­ti­cle on Jim Jarmusch.
Images Journal re­view with screen­shots.
• YouTube Clips [1, 23].

The Importance of Being Earnest

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #158: Anthony Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest.

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I have a queer affection for this film. It isn't my type of film at all, in fact. But it is so deliberately smarmy and the dialogue so witty and refreshing that I quickly forget that I'd want to beat the shit out of these people in real life. Oscar Wilde's play loses nothing in the hands of Anthony Asquith and his stellar roundup of actors; Michael Redgrave in particular gives a stellar performance. I'm trying to step a bit away from academic analysis in these reviews, but I will say that the film is somewhat of a meta-dialogue since it contains actors playing actors playing characters who are actors. This affectation, and the numerous clever plot twists keep the pace fresh in what are interminably long scenes for film.

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In fact, the plot devices, twists and development are so well integrated into the characters' behavior and Asquith's portrayal of such, that the end of the film becomes even more startling for its nearly frivolous climax and its appropriately impudent pun. It only comes as an afterthought that such a work was probably a trenchant satire at the time it was written, following in the best traditions of popular English literature. There is much that would have been humorous for its shock value over 100 years ago that has a different sort of humorous applicability in contemporary times. So while the film has a dated feel in terms of content and cinematic style, its fundamentals are strong enough for it to rightly deserve the title of classic.

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Criterion Essay by Charles Dennis.
• The Oscar Wilde play at Project Gutenberg.
YouTube clips from the film. They're funny.

Rashômon

Sunday, 28 January 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #138: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon.

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There isn’t a whole lot to say in crit­i­cal terms about Rashômon that hasn’t been said be­fore, and bet­ter than I could say it. So in­stead of talk­ing about it in terms of its ex­am­i­na­tion of truth, its cul­tur­al con­text, or its in­no­v­a­tive style, I’m go­ing to re­view this film in terms of what makes it en­ter­tain­ing; one of those rare for­eign films that just about every­one can en­joy. And since Japan de­cid­ed that films made be­fore 1953 should be re­leased in­to the pub­lic do­main, you can watch the en­tire thing on Google Video. I’ve linked to it be­low.

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Much ado has been made about Toshirô Mifune’s act­ing as the ban­dit Tajomaru, but all of the per­for­mances are su­perb. This time around I was struck by the qual­i­ty of Masayuki Mori’s por­tray­al of Takehiro, a char­ac­ter whose trans­for­ma­tion from sto­ry to sto­ry is even more wide-rang­ing than Mifune’s. At least Mifune did not have to play a dead man. This leads to the creepi­est part of the film. The tes­ti­mony of the late Takehiro comes through the em­ploy­ment of a lo­cal medi­um.

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Quite pos­si­bly the ugli­est wom­an ever, a se­quence fol­lows with Takehiro’s lo-fi and tor­ment­ed voice lip-synched to the medium’s trance thrash­ings. I hadn’t made con­nec­tions be­tween this and Ringu, but now that I have it seems al­most cer­tain that Ringu takes some of its cues from this scene. The film is full of sex and vi­o­lence, but it nev­er gets old since the sus­pense built by the con­flict­ing tes­ti­monies re­fresh­es the un­cer­tain­ty. The use of sus­pense is wor­thy of Hitchcock, es­pe­cial­ly in terms of de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tion, since just about every­one claims to have killed Takehiro [in­clud­ing Takehiro] in­stead of the ex­pect­ed de­nials.

Quite sim­ply, Rashômon is a good movie be­cause its foun­da­tion is good sto­ry­telling. It be­comes a great film due to its ad­di­tion­al philo­soph­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of truth, but the ex­cel­lent act­ing makes this dis­cus­sion seem nat­u­ral and the film avoids be­com­ing over­ly preachy, over­ly far­ci­cal or over­ly trag­ic and in­stead seems as nat­u­ral as a sum­mer rain­storm.

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Criterion Essay by Stephen Prince.
Kurosawa on Rashomon.
Roger Ebert re­view.
Dan Schneider Review.
• Watch the whole movie on Google Video.

Playtime

Saturday, 27 January 2007

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #112: Jacques Tati's Playtime.

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M. Hulot is back, at least part-time, for his last appearance in cinema. Playtime continues Tati's tradition of satirizing the mundane, but unlike M. Hulot's Holiday, this time the focus is on modernity rather than leisure time. Filmed nearly 15 years after Holiday, Tati has polished Hulot's mannerisms and now makes him work smarter, not harder when he is on-screen. In fact, there are faux-Hulot's throughout the film, confusing both the spectator and various characters in the film itself.

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This sort of refinement increases the enjoyability factor of the film, but it is hard to discover this fact until the very end.. There is quite a bit of slapstick involved, but it is so restrained as to be almost uncomfortable; the sound of hard shoes on a hard floor, the irrational modulations of ventilation systems, the unintelligible murmurs of smalltalk, all combines to make ambient sound its own character in the film. The whole environment of in modern city life creates unintentional hilarity after unintentional hilarity, and part of what strengthens this aspect is that none of the people in the film notice that something funny is happening; a facet that was not present in M. Hulot's Holiday.

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Every person in the film seems obsessed with being as modern [and to Tati, as ridiculous] as possible. There is an emphasis on protocol, following the directions of the modern manner and devices, when the old ways would be faster and less prone to confusion. At one point Hulot wanders into a trade show of new inventions and they are possibly the stupidest things ever invented. [e.g. a broom with headlights, a silent door [which sounds alright until you need to slam it for effect]]. The salespersons earnestly display their Ionic column trash cans and pantomime their use, and there are ubiquitous leather chairs that act like whoopee cushions whenever someone so much as touches them. But, all this is "modern" and so overlooked by people doing their best to appear modern themselves.

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This is infuriating, and it all comes to a head in an interminable sequence at a night club that has opened even though construction on it hasn't finished. In their haste to be modern they've neglected common sense on every level. The chairs ruin people's clothing, they only had enough food for 27 people, the kitchen is completely unfinished, and the neon sign directs the bounced right back inside. Thankfully everyone thinks this is just part of the restaurant's modern ambience and play along until the band gets frustrated and leaves. After this climax the people start acting like real people for a change and the atmosphere of the film ceases to be as bland in color [reminiscent of Le samouraï]and affect as it has for most of the film. It ends with a vibrant release of color, a roundabout becomes a carousel, and we get a feeling that there is something sublime about being so ridiculous.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the reference to Godard's Breathless that takes place in the film. You couldn't miss it if you tried.

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Criterion Essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Roger Ebert Review.
• Details on the reconstruction of the 70mm print.
• Senses of Cinema article on Tati.
• Cinematic Reflections article on the film.
Five clips from the film on YouTube.

Pulled Pork Barbecue

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Sauce Fixins Pork Barbecue is one of my fa­vorite things to eat. Good pork bar­be­cue is one of the tough­est things to cook. I gave it my first shot this past week­end, and it turned out bet­ter re­heat­ed than fresh­ly cooked. I used a recipe from a sus­pect site, but its sim­plic­i­ty is what drew me to it. I re­al­ly like to ex­per­i­ment, and this recipe leaves much room for that. I think I’m go­ing to have a few friends over for the Super Bowl and sub­ject them to an­oth­er go at the bar­be­cue. They liked my ribs from ear­lier, so they’ll eat any­thing. More pic­tures start­ing here.

Shoot The Piano Player

Monday, 22 January 2007

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #315: François Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player.

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I on­ly have ten more films to re­watch in The Criterion Collection be­fore I can start watch­ing stuff I haven’t seen be­fore again. I’m look­ing for­ward to that day. Here’s a lit­tle con­text about Shoot the Piano Player. It is con­sid­ered part of the French New Wave, and its di­rec­tor, François Truffaut, one of the pre­mier nou­velle vague au­teurs. It is based on a pulp fic­tion nov­el by David Goodis called Down There. The film is much bet­ter than the nov­el. This is al­so one of those films that sends aca­d­e­mics in­to shark­like slaver­ing fits due more to its con­text than its qual­i­ty. That isn’t to say it is a crum­my film. It is very en­ter­tain­ing, poignant, pol­ished and still fresh af­ter near­ly 50 years.

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But the Möbius strip feed­back be­tween the film, its dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion as French film noir from American film noir, its self-aware­ness, its ob­vi­ous un­der­cut­ting of ex­pec­ta­tion, and its hu­mor lend the fo­cus more on Truffaut’s di­rec­tion, the mech­a­nism, rather than the con­tent. That is re­al­ly on­ly to be ex­pect­ed, since the gen­er­al con­tent, apart from the afore­men­tioned un­der­cut ex­pec­ta­tions, is noth­ing re­al­ly new. Despite the fact that there is a sui­cide, a few mur­ders and some kid­nap­ping, a sort of dy­nam­ic equi­lib­ri­um is main­tained with brief philo­soph­ic in­ter­ludes and con­sis­tent hu­mor. The re­sult is a film that leaves a view­er sat­ed on all fronts, gorged or starved on none.

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The most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter is, of course, the pi­ano play­er: Charlie/​Edouard. There is a re­mark­able amount of his char­ac­ter ex­po­si­tion in a film that is on­ly 81 min­utes long. At times the view­er is privy to his in­ner mono­logue, but ul­ti­mate­ly he re­mains a mys­tery and his ob­ses­sion with the pi­ano a si­mul­ta­ne­ous bless­ing and curse. Still, this un­solved mys­tery doesn’t leave any dis­sat­is­fac­tion, as it is ob­vi­ous that Charlie is con­tent with his lot, as long as there is a pi­ano with­in fin­ger range. Charlie re­minds me of this open­ing pas­sage:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged huge­ly by the whole might of the ocean, the jel­ly­fish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shi­nes through it, and the dark en­ters it. Borne, flung, tugged from any­where to any­where, for in the deep sea there is no com­pass but near­er and far­ther, high­er and low­er, the jel­ly­fish hangs and sways; puls­es move slight and quick with­in it, as the vast di­ur­nal puls­es beat in the moon­driven sea. Hanging, sway­ing, puls­ing, the most vul­ner­a­ble and in­sub­stan­tial crea­ture, it has for its de­fense the vi­o­lence and pow­er of the whole ocean, to which it has en­trust­ed its be­ing, its go­ing, and its will.

–Ursula K. LeGuin The Lathe of Heaven

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While Charlie isn’t quite as pas­sive as a jel­ly­fish, he does have a cer­tain sto­ic ac­cep­tance of the sit­u­a­tions he finds him­self in. The on­ly time he is vis­i­bly ag­i­tat­ed is when Lena is in dan­ger. The rest of their char­ac­ters play their parts, so it re­al­ly is the man­ner of the film-mak­ing, the gim­mick shots, the sight gags, the un­der­cur­rent of smar­tassed French hu­mor that gives the film its pep.

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Criterion Essay by Kent Jones.
Carter B. Horsley Review.
Tom Huddleston Review.
• Pulp cov­er of David Goodis’s Down There.
• YouTube clips [12].