Friday, June 27, 2008

The Merchant of the Four Seasons

The Merchant of the Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) [8]

Fassbinder's dramas of the human condition are almost always steeped in Sirkian melodrama and yet, he somehow manages to not make them feel cheesy but vital in some way. In this film, which follows the travails of Hans (Hans Hirschmuller), a fruit vendor as he deals with his overbearing middle class family, honorable yet straying wife, and a past that he just can't leave behind. With this film, as well as some others, notable Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder shows such precision with getting the right emotional details out of his performers. A simple story such as this works because Fassbinder has such a compassion for a character such as Hans but is not afraid to show him suffering and, ultimately, fail in a pursuit of a happy life. The film really hinges on a theme found in Sirk, the idea of forbidden love, but it is never the focus of the film. Fassbinder is more concerned with showing the ramifications of the idea. Hans clearly cares for his wife, but even she realizes by the end that his heart has always belonged to another women. His middle-class family, who constantly criticize him in his career decisions, only help drain all the dreams that Hans once had. It certainly comes as no surprise that Hans should meet a less than ideal end after one devastating blow after another. It's too easy to call the film an overwhelming downer because even though it may be, it also directly addresses the hopes and dreams of the human condition. And while it may not meet a certain conclusion, the film makes you feel for Hans, which is all you can ask for.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin

George Carlin died Sunday. He has been one of the most important and one of my favorite comedians for as long as I've been into stand-up comedy. This video has been on some other sites the past few days, notably Deadspin, but it is perhaps my favorite Carlin bit:

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Harlan County, U.S.A.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) [10]

Harlan County, U.S.A. is unequivocally one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and in this current age of egotistical partisanism in political documentaries, it's stands so much above in terms of intelligence and telling its story. That isn't meant to say the film has no political agenda, Kopple and company clearly side with the miners and their struggle but she constructs a film without hyperventilating bluster by realizing these are real people and treating them and their story with respect and a supreme understanding of their plight.

What makes the film is that story is highly compelling. In 1973, workers at a coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky elected to join the United Mine Workers of America. The company that owned the mine refused to sign the union contract and as a result, the miners went on strike. This led to a series of picket lines, scabs, intimidation of the striking miners by company hired "gun thugs", and all the eroding passion and determination that a year plus strike can have on the miners and their families. Kopple recognizes right away the it's the people that propel this narrative and her sympathy with the miners and their families allow her insight into meetings, the picket lines themselves, and the true feelings of the families being effected. This obvious sympathy made her a target by the strikebreakers, as the famous scene of Basil Collins, the head strikebreaker, pointing a gun at Kopple and her camera crew and their subsequent beating at the hands of some scabs. The film shows numerous moments like this between the striking miners and the scabs, with the threat of violence ready to break out at any moment. The film smartly goes these skirmishes and its best moments are the ones capturing behind the scenes moments. The film has been notable for capturing the role of women in the strike, the wives, daughters, and mothers of the miners who recognize that a better future for their men will also mean improvements for their lives, as exemplified by the fact that the company owned housing they occupy has no indoor plumbing and running water. These women are the backbone of the film, showing as much courage and emotion as the men but also becoming a perfect embodiment of the women's lib movement that was exploding in the mid 70s. It is they who give the film emotion and empathy, the true soul of the film. When the moment comes when a striking mine worker is killed by a scab, it shows this. It's one of the most emotionally potent moments I have ever seen in cinema.

All the praise the film has gotten over the years is worth it. It's not a film about political ideology, even though it has a clear political point of view. The history of the union struggle in the mines as well as the fantastic union songs clearly show Kopple's allegiance. The film goes beyond a political argument into a social one, showing people struggling to find some decency and not be exploited. That should not be a disputed point.

Friday, June 13, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

I'm missing Bonnaroo for the first time since 2002 so I'm going to fill my disappointment with as many films as possible this weekend.

4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, 2008) [9]
Romanian cinema is certainly on a roll of late in terms of art film circles. 4m3W2D is another gritty, dark social drama, a la The Death of Mr. Lazerescu, and it's a supremely made, taut film that deserves much of the praise it's been given. It's not really a film about abortion however; in fact, there are some lapses in logic in the central story that would be glaring if the film wasn't so well made. It's more of a parable of living in the dying days of communist rule in Romania, full of paranoia and the grim struggle that was life. Mungiu focuses on two roommates, one named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) that needs an abortion, which is illegal and her roomate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who helps her with all the logistical details. Where Mungiu twists it a bit is that he spends his focus on Otilia, who ends up doing all the hard work for Gabita, who has neither thought out or has the will to do anything for herself. It's this focus on Otilia that keeps the film out of a hot-button argument about abortion and instead makes it more of a parable of living under a certain regime and time. The film follows Otilia as she helps rectify Gabita's bone-headed decisions, from meeting the smarmy and arrogant abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to finding a hotel room after Gabita screws up her first attempt. The film clearly sympathizes with Otilia as she sacrifices herself for her friend. Mungiu expertly executes the tension surrounding the scenario without cheapening the mood of the film. The best example of this is when Otilia has to leave Gabita alone to visit her boyfriend and her parents. Those scenes speak most about the film and who Otilia is, not the issue of abortion itself. The scene of a long take of Otilia at the dinner table, washed in a sea of people who she has nothing in common with is a powerful moment of cinema, even if I'm not sure how it fits exactly. Mungiu deftly creates emotions out of the picture, the empathy we feel for the women, creating moments of tension when there really is no threat, and most of all, creating a look and feel of the film that shows the dreary, beaten down existence under the crumbling Ceausescu regime. It's such of film of assured craftsmanship and emotional connection that it's no wonder it has gotten the praise it deserves.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Turistas (John Stockwell, 2006) [2]
Granted I haven’t seen many of the films of this so-called ‘torture porn’ genre or the likes of the American rubes abroad genre a la Hostel, but I can get the general idea. Usually, I have no inclination of seeing anything of this sort, but it’s strange what boredom and borderline depression will cause you to watch on a given morning.

Turistas is one of the most insulting films I’ve ever seen. I don’t care to hear arguments that this isn’t supposed to be a representation of reality or that it’s just another form of exploitation cinema; that doesn’t excuse it from being a stupid film dealing in stupid stereotypes. A group of Euro/American tourists (you know, from the civilized countries) end up stranded in the Brazilian jungle after their bus crashes. Instead of being good citizens, they head to the nearest beach and act like drunken jackasses, only to be robbed blind by the locals. They (no one in this group is worth pointing out individually) end up following one local to a home only to be unwitting participants to a mad doctor harvesting their organs. The doctor’s rationale for this is that he’s taking revenge on these pampered First-Worlders and giving something to the Third World. I’m not one of these America First conservatives so I don’t have an issue with the ideas present in this situation. I’m insulted because the whole premise is incredibly stereotypical and completely lacks creativity. By creating a horror film that preys on the fears of Americans, that if they go overseas, there are a bunch of supposedly unscrupulous locals ready to take advantage of you, whether it be ripping you off for shitty souvenirs or by drugging you and stealing your organs, is insulting to both the audience and the “others” they’re taking advantage of for a story. It makes no difference that this is an exaggeration of supposed urban legends or not meant to be taken seriously; it’s insulting to me as a filmgoer in general. This may be the snob in me speaking, but I expect something better in cinema. If you’re going to use insipid Third World stereotypes to set up a lame story where the only thing saving you is Olivia Wilde in a bikini, then it’s not worth it.

Friday, June 06, 2008


Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg, 1970) [7]

This film has been called the best representation of the Swinging London of the late 60s but for me, that far from the most interesting part of it. Sure, it has all the sex, drugs, and music that would become the general overview of that time and yet, the story is fairly flat and uninteresting. James Fox plays Chas, a sadistic mob goon who needs to find a hideaway after killing a guy. He overhears a conversation which leads him to rent a room in a mansion occupied by a reclusive rock star named Turner, played by Mick Jagger and two young ladies (Anita Pallenberg and Michelle Breton). Once immersed in this new, strange world, Chas succumbs to Turner's mind games and the line between identities and reality get blurred. It really makes no use trying to unearth the story as it is never really there. Fox is acceptable in his role and Jagger really does nothing more than act the way people think of Mick Jagger. There's nudity, sex, and drugs; they're there but have none of the shocking nature they must have originally had. What makes the film important is Roeg's portion of the film, the photography and a result of that, the structure. It's amazing to me that a major Hollywood studio ever released this because it's one of the most experimental narrative films I've ever seen handled by an American studio. Warner Brothers whole rationale must have been solely based on the fact that Jagger was going to be in it. Cammell's basic plot plays with ideas of identity and the whole notion of performance, which he got from writings by Borges and Artaud. These ideas are stretching the boundaries of what, at least in film terms, would be acceptable and anticipated. That the ending sees a combination of Tuner and Chas's identities into one being is not surprising. By pushing some radical ideas around, the film itself can take a very loose, radical approach. There are some images in this that are challenging to decipher yet they make the film work because the film never settles down. Performance is a film that led to an opening of structure in British cinema. I feel it has a lot in common with another film out of Britain near the same time, Dyn Amo by Stephen Dwoskin. That film takes its ideas of identity, sex, and what Freud called 'the gaze' to a much more extreme area but it has the same mentality as this film. I happen to like films that are challenging the viewer with new or difficult images or subject matter and Performance, especially Nicolas Roeg's work, meet that criteria.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Monthly Listening Post - Late for May/Early for June

I realized I missed posting one of these for the last month, so this one covers everything within that frame.

The Black Angels - Directions to See a Ghost
Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind
Jamie Lidell - Jim
Old 97s - Blame It On Gravity
Sun Kil Moon - April
The Dodos - Visiter
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Some new film reviews will be coming soon.