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].