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, 2, 3].

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 [1, 2].