Baz Luhrmann | Tom DiCillo | Whit Stillman | Joel Silberg | Stephen Sommers | Nathaniel Christian | Dimitri Logothetis | Anthony Drazan | John Waters | Noah Baumbach | Pjer Zalica | Douglas Keeve | Lance Laspina | Tom Neff | Margarethe von Trotta | Walter Salles
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Buñuel's gem also shows parallels with Peter Maas' Golden Earring video, "Twilight Zone". Considering its filmic potential, I am surprised that there is not now a whole genre of films in the style of Discrete Charm. However, DiCillo's characters are at once more sympathetic and more suffering than Buñuel's. However inept, they are at least trying to make a worthwhile movie. And their frustrations are not just surreal, but double as a fairly realistic look at the pitfalls of independent filmmaking. Together with Edward Burns' The Brothers McMullen, this movie is part of a Pirandellian trend by independent filmmakers to turn their lenses on themselves, and explore the life of an aspiring, low budget auteur. Perhaps it is just the old advice to "write about what you know".
DiCillo's characters all seem to come alive as people; the script is unusually well rounded, with many aspects of their lives explored and brought to the front. I also like the way in which the characters interact: this is a full drama, in which people are not isolated, but actually talk and relate to each other. DiCillo has links to the comedy of manners, and the tradition of such writers as Shaw and Wilde. His characters also seem believable as creative artists. Despite all the gibes at bad acting in the script, the performances here are uniformly excellent. I eventually came to feel sorry for these people, they are all trying so hard, and with such frustration. Dermot Mulroney's "Wolf" builds up a special pathos.
We should try to support directors like Silberg, who are making individualistic, non-standard movies. One of the basic lessons of the "auteur theory" is that a personal vision is the key to artistic success. Silberg has pursued his own personal vision of the musical through nearly a decade of filming, without drawing any attention to himself from the critical establishment. Unfortunately many critics tend instead to write off any filmmaker who ignores conventional filmmaking styles, when they should be hailing them instead for attempting something new. Silberg's films are also easily dismissable as "ridiculous" (they are comedies) and "low brow" (they are musicals, after all), and suffer from all the underrating of these two genres in American critical discourse. Silberg's film lacks the stigmata of "high art", but is far more artistic than most of the year's releases.
The film's central premise deals with illegal gambling on stock car races, a subject of dubious morality. One just has to accept this and look the other way to enjoy the movie, which otherwise has considerable merits. The film is a drama, not a comedy, unlike many teen pics, and features good, complex characterization, and many interesting happenings.
Christian's film clearly has many artistic virtues that are apparent to people who enjoy this sort of film. The characters are emotionally supportive of each other's complexly delineated, sensitive feelings. Their kindness and generosity with each other could form a role model for real life explorations of human relationships, sexual and otherwise.
Christian' s film also has a good deal of zanieness and plot inventiveness. A central plot focuses on the hero's attempts to upgrade his social skills, which are on the Neanderthal level. Like many American men, our hero recognizes that he is deficient in the social and relationship arena, and wants to improve. I've always liked this "frog turns into a prince" plot, and it allows for a good deal of social satire: self-criticism of men that never degenerates into man-bashing. Our hero has a good heart, and he works on everything else.
Robert Patrick gives a a likable performance. I am used to thinking about Patrick in terms of his menacing portrayal of the robot killer in Terminator 2, all implacability and no emotion. His hitman in Albert Pyun's Hong Kong 97 seemed an extension of this, all murderous efficiency and no feelings, and I thought that was Patrick's "thing" as a performer. He seems completely different in this movie, so much so that at first I thought I was seeing a different actor who just happened to have the same name. Here he is playing a good guy, and a man who has normal feelings. He can express all of these feelings very well, and gets to play an actual person for the first time in recent films. He smiles, laughs, and has a great variety of emotions, unlike the single visaged characters of the other movies. He is also dressed completely differently. In Terminator 2, he wore an LAPD uniform; in Hong Kong 97, he was always dressed in elegant but formally correct business suits, indicating that he was all business, and pretty darn implacable. These were the serious grown up clothes of authority. Here in Body Shot he is casually dressed, in vests, turtlenecks, leather jackets, and so on, the most boyish clothes imaginable. They have also changed his hair to a boyish wedge cut, unlike the disciplined business man look in Hong Kong 97, and made him a blond. It is a startling transformation. His character is the most vulnerable, least aggressive, most fragile, least powerful and most sensitive character in Body Shot, so he seems like a person who is barely coping with all of the sinister events around him.
He plays a photographer, and is clearly playing the archetype of the Sensitive Artist. I always like films about visual artists very much, being a painter myself, and identify with such characters strongly. The film opens with the image of Patrick photographing, and it establishes this as the principal theme of the film. Sternberg's lighting in this scene is especially striking. It is a dazzling shot. A rotating scene with pigeons taking off is also very beautiful. Logothetis' sense of composition is striking. Each image is centered around one highlighted subject, on which it focuses, and towards which the viewer's attention is drawn. Surrounding this is an interesting but simple geometric composition, which is always pleasant to study. It is very good indeed to see a young filmmaker with a personal sense of visual style.
John Waters' career began with very low budget comedies shot in his native Baltimore, including Mondo Trasho and Eat Your Makeup. He attained cult status with the flamboyant Pink Flamingos, and was hailed as "The Pope of Trash" by avant-garde author William S. Burroughs, no less. I have never seen most of these early comedies, but caught up with him instead with the delightful musical comedy Hairspray (1989). This modestly budgeted work was his first big commercial film hit, and here he is back again with another musical, Cry-Baby. Cry-Baby is a campy spoof of 1950's Juvenile Delinquency melodramas and Elvis Presley movies.
The characters in Cry-Baby are less interesting than those in Hairspray. They are simply cardboard figures for Walters to hang his spoof of old movies (and 1950's real life) on. While the characters are pleasant, it is hard to imagine anyone really caring about them, as we did in Hairspray. Similarly, the plot twists and turns seem far less meaningful, believable or emotionally involving here than in the previous film. What does succeed are the high energy musical numbers, and much of the satire is very sharp on its own Carol Burnett show movie spoof level. Also Waters' wonderfully zany and individual personality shines through in the whole film, and helps the bright cheery comic tone created throughout. His invention never flags, and there is as much zanieness in the later scenes as those at the start. This film is recommended, but you might not like it as much as Hairspray.
Baumbach's film also suffers from the way his leading lady seems to have almost no personality of her own. She seems like a complete cipher. The hero's "relationship" with her seems completely vacuous. Nor is the hero of the film much better characterized.
The person in the film with the richest personality is one of the supporting characters, the successful young writer. He emerges as the only three dimensional human being in the film. This is partly because he is much better written than the others. He has a meaningful job, creative talents that are being expressed, meaningful relationships, and ideas and feelings that he communicates with great vigor. The character is also played by the actor who gives the best performance, Chris Eigeman. Eigeman is best known from such Whit Stillman films as Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994). Eigeman is here bearded and wearing high fashion suits and dark shirts; it is quite a transformation from when he was last seen, as a spit and polish naval officer in Barcelona.
Everything in the small Bosnian town in which the film is set is run by a series of two-bit crooks. When word comes that President Clinton is going to come for a visit, the town tries to clean up its act. The representatives of NATO who have much clout in the town also try to force a reconciliation between the Serbians and the Moslems, something which is very difficult for both sides.
Fuse offers a genuinely hopeful picture of the world. It suggests that there might be a future after war. That there might be forgiveness of people who were involved in war. And that people, however chaotically, might learn to live together again. When I saw the film, it gave me hope that my country, the United States, might someday be forgiven for having started the Iraq war. And that maybe there were things we could do that would reconcile us to the rest of the world.
Works of art like Fuse are very important. They allow us to visualize a better world. Without such visualization, how are we going to build a better life for ourselves? We all need goals. There have been so many war movies recently. Fuse is a peace movie. It is a film that allows its viewers to visualize peace. This is extremely rare in the current cinema.
The character of the NATO officer who keeps prodding the townspeople to take steps towards reconciliation is also fascinating. Here is a man who embodies the kind of discipline and drive we associate with military character. But he is using it to promote peace, not war. It makes one wonder what might happen if all the high energies of today's militaries were directed towards peace and rebuilding around the world, what might be accomplished. The peace champion in the US, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, has proposed a peace academy, modeled on West Point, that would train equally adept peace workers, people filled with the skills, discipline and drive one associates with West Point grads. The NATO officer in the film could be a representative of such a breed of man. His spit and polish appearance, iron will, limitless energy, and endless vision of something better than has ever been seen in the town, are all tremendously fascinating and hopeful. What might our world be like, if he were a role model for today's young people? His constant ability to imagine something better, recalls such films as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Akira Kurosawa, 1945) and Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000). Those films too centered on visionary characters, whose positive ideas eventually uplifted and transformed everyone around them.
Keeve's own work shows many unusual photography techniques, whose effect is to try to get us to see the world and its shapes in fresh new ways. First we see something as sculpture, in black and white, then we see it in color, then as a pure shape again. It is a very interesting experience, and this technique should be reused for educational films about art.
A rich sample of Frazetta's artwork is displayed on-screen. This makes the film different from such dramatized artist-biopics of recent years as Pollock (Ed Harris) and Surviving Picasso (James Ivory), for which the filmmakers did not obtain the rights to show the artists' actual paintings. Here we see everything from artist's sketches, to paintings, to movie posters and book covers centered on Frazetta illustrations. The film is an excellent introduction to Frazetta's themes, approaches and visual styles. The viewer spends an hour and a half in deep contemplation of a multitude of Frazetta works, and comes away with a much better understanding of his style.
The auteur theory applies to painters, just as much as it does to filmmakers. According to the auteur theory, by studying a director's (or painter's) entire output, one begins to understand his or her personal approaches and techniques. Individual works start looking different after such an in-depth study: the viewer starts noticing much more about detail, structure and attitude towards subject matter than they probably would have, had they simply studied an individual work in isolation. Frazetta: Painting with Fire is a great place to begin having such an "auteur experience" with Frazetta.
Frazetta's works reproduce on-screen with perhaps greater fidelity to the artist's vision, than perhaps would those of some other artists. Frazetta intended much of his work as illustration, and it was painted to create an effect when used in photographic reproduction to illustrate books. Consequently, seeing the paintings on film is not that great a stretch from what Frazetta originally intended with his work.
The film does not include or mention my favorite Frazetta work, the short lived comic strip Johnny Comet (1952-1953), created when the artist was 23. Frazetta was born in Brooklyn, on February 9, 1928. Johnny Comet is a racecar driver. The complete strip was reprinted in a single volume a decade ago, and is noted for its striking artwork (1991, Eclipse Books, edited by Letitia Glazer and Dean Mullaney). It is a sad commentary on the state of comic strip preservation that there are several gaps in this publication, where no surviving example of that day's strip could be found to reproduce. The book as a whole was only made possible by a collaboration of comic strip collectors around the world, pooling all their collections to provide coverage of as much of the strip as still exists.
The film concentrates on Frazetta's book cover illustrations to such sword and sorcery novels as Conan the Barbarian. These paintings are what created Frazetta's fame. The originals are today valuable collectors' items, and the film points out their influence on a whole school of fantasy illustrators since.
This film is the direct antithesis of a film such as Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995). While both films are portraits of comics artists, Crumb encourages us to look down on the artist and his family, who are largely portrayed as troubled human beings. By contrast, Frazetta: Painting with Fire is a celebration of a gifted, dynamic man, and his lifetime of accomplishment. Its tone is much closer to The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Aviva Kempner, 2000), which also applauded its hero's achievements. The film presents Frazetta as a role model, someone whose life and art can serve as an inspiration to future generations, and their attempts to achieve something worthwhile with their work.
The title echoes those of such quality art films as Jasper Johns: Ideas in Paint (Rick Tejada-Flores, 1989), Isamu Noguchi: Stones and Paper (Hiro Narita, 1997) and The Impressionists: The Other French Revolution (Bruce Alfred, 2001), a collective biography of the French Impressionists. It differs from all of the above by dealing with an illustrator, not a "high" artist whose works were mainly created for the "art world". Critics interviewed in the film makes some bold claims in passing that illustration work in general and Frazetta's art in particular are as good as works created as "art" for the "art world". These claims have considerable merit, and I feel sympathetic towards them. However, neither the critics nor the film as a whole really make the sort of deep dive into aesthetic issues that would explore the strengths and weaknesses of such an idea. This logical lacuna hardly invalidates the film's chief strength, its rich look at the life and art of Frank Frazetta.
Herb Alpert: Music for Your Eyes (Tom Neff, 2002) is a look at musician Herb Alpert's abstract paintings and sculptures. Alpert is well known as a popular and jazz musician. But in recent years he has taken up abstract art. The results are far more interesting than what might be supposed. Alpert has a genuine visual inventiveness. His works are cheerful, vigorous, and full of both complex geometric shapes and vibrant color.
Alpert's paintings are in the tradition of early Kandinsky. They are large canvases, filled with a diverse mix of irregular shapes, that are closer to biomorphic forms than to anything purely geometrical. Each of the shapes, and the supporting glowing regions of color around them, is a different bright color. The colors make a harmony or symphony together. All of this strongly recalls early Kandinsky.
Alpert's sculptures are not in color - they are monochrome like most sculpture, and suffer for not embodying Alpert's strong color sense. The sculptures' large size, curving forms sometimes filled with holes, and abstract patterns somewhat recall Henry Moore. I enjoy Alpert's sculpture, particularly for its inventive mix of somewhat biomorphic forms, but my biggest enthusiasm is for the color paintings.
Abstract art used to be far more prestigious than it is today. It had a central role in art during 1910-1960. But the rise of Pop Art, Conceptual Art and related forms in the 1960's led to a de-emphasis on abstract art within the official "art world". This has appalled many abstract artists, who still believe that abstraction is one of the key forms of artistic expression. There is now a stand-off between abstract artists and their admirers on the one hand, and the mandarins in charge of the "art world" on the other. Unfortunately, the "art world" is not democratic. Ordinary people, such as myself, do not get to vote on what we want to value in art. The "art world" is a closed place, run by people who are not responsive in the slightest to ideas or the votes of art lovers.
Tom Neff is a filmmaker with an eclectic background. This is the first and only film of his I have been able to see, and cannot comment on his career or artistic techniques as a whole. The film does not seem innovative. But it shows strong bread-and-butter virtues. Neff gives us good long looks at Alpert's paintings and sculptures, both as a whole, and close-ups of meaningful details. He has been expert at capturing Alpert at work on his sculpture, and watching Alpert make creative decisions gives one real insight in the creation of the visual forms in his work. The film is full of meaningful commentary by Alpert and others, clear, insightful and idea oriented. The logical progression of ideas and images makes the film lucid and easy to follow, without over-simplifying the ideas in the works. Neff's film seems like a model film on art, a work that genuinely reveals its subject to its viewers.
Rosenstrasse (Margarethe von Trotta, 2003) is the true story, of one of the few attempts by Germans to launch protests against the Nazi dictatorship. "Rosenstrasse" means "Rose Street" in German: it is the name the Berlin street where the protests took place. When the Nazis arrested Jews, they did not arrest the Gentile (non-Jewish) husbands or wives who might happen to be married to them. Instead, the Gentile spouses were put under huge pressure from the Nazi State to divorce and abandon their spouses. Some did, but others did not. Some of the Gentile wives stuck to their husbands through thick and thin. When the Jewish men were held prisoner in a facility on Rosenstrasse, many of their wives gathered in the street outside and kept vigil. This eventually led to PROTEST!
The scene where the women find their voices, and begin to protest what is going on, is one of the most electrifying in the current cinema. It should serve as a model for us all. We need to raise up our voices, and speak out as loudly as possible, against war, violence, racial prejudice and political imprisonment.
Historians today wonder, what might have happened if more Germans had launched non-violent protests against the Nazi regime. The Nazis were very sensitive to world opinion. They dreaded propaganda embarrassments. Apparently, it was the infamous German propagandist Goebbels himself who directed the Nazis' capitulation to the Rosenstrasse protest, fearing a publicity disaster for the Nazi regime.
Rosenstrasse benefits from a complex story structure. The plot is constructed out of flashbacks, like Citizen Kane. This allows a lot of different perspectives to come to bear on the material. It also constantly reminds us that the Nazis were ultimately defeated.
Diarios de motocicleta / The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) tells the story of young Che Guevara's trip around South America, before he joined the Communist Party and took part in the Cuban Revolution. In some, purely technical ways, this is an impressive picture. There is lots of fascinating Latin American scenery, including views of Patagonia and the Andes, that make for a visually splendid travelogue. And the film is cast with glamorous performers. Salles definitely has storytelling talent. But what is he doing with it here?
This film has all the earmarks of hard core political propaganda. We see none of Che's political activities in this film. Instead, the attempt is to make Che seem as cute as possible. It is like the methods used in commercials. Instead of talking about or showing the actual product for sale (in this case, Communism), the filmmakers try to associate it in the viewers' minds with sex and glamour.
The real Che left a horrendous history of bloodshed behind him. He headed a prison in Communist Cuba that specialized in the torture and murder of political prisoners. And he tried to start armed conflicts all over the world. All of that is carefully kept off screen here.
We can contrast this with a film that advocates non-violent resistance to oppression in the Gandhi tradition, the admirable Rosenstrasse (Margarethe von Trotta, 2003). Rosenstrasse actually shows the main historical activities of the women of Rosenstrasse, their protest against the Nazi regime. Try to imagine what this film would have been like had it followed Salles' awful example: it would have shown only the early lives of the women involved, maybe concentrating on them knitting or raising cute little puppies! Instead, Trotta shows us in full what the women of Rosenstrasse actually did.
One can see why Salles is afraid to show us Che's real activities. Any look at the real Che and his treatment of political prisoners in Cuba would have caused viewers to run screaming out of the theater. It will clearly be a cold day in hell before any real look at Che's activities reaches our screens.
This toothpaste commercial-glamorous portrait of Che certainly offers some style pointers. The popular image of Che since the 1960's has shown him as a heavily bearded guy, frequently on a T shirt. This scruffy, bearded look has served well, especially in the hippie era. But it is now plainly out of date. The filmmakers have come up with a new image for Che here, as a cute yuppie in black leather. This is plainly a lot more in tune with modern fashion. Even with the current popularity of TV makeover shows, this deserves some sort of award as Best Extreme Makeover of 2004. Like Josh Harnett, Gael García Bernal has the wimpy, boneless look that has been decreed as the male ideal by fashionistas in recent years. Just as Harnett has served as the cute star of Hollywood war propaganda films in the Bush era, so is García Bernal now the new cute face of Communism. Just think about it: think of all the people who have died in wars launched by Communists on the extreme left, and by Bush on the extreme right. And these sinister, radical political movements are now fronted on screen by García Bernal and Harnett, two cute guys who look too wimpy to take out the garbage!
Not that Che is portrayed as wimpy on screen. Instead, the film relentlessly underscores that he and his best friend are 100% virile heterosexuals. Communists' hatred of homosexuality is undying. This film once again equates male heterosexuality with Communist Revolution. This is one of the most beloved doctrines of Fidel Castro's brand of Communism. Fidel's hatred of homosexuals is not openly on display here. The filmmakers have no doubt calculated that an open display of anti-gay hatred would not go down well with current art house audiences. Instead, they have chosen to keep gayness off-screen altogether. Among the hundreds of people Che meets on his journey here, all are straight. Apparently, there are no gay people in Latin America, just as there were no black people in the future world of Star Wars (1977). There are fewer gay people here than at a Republican National Convention, and the two Communists shown in the film are the sort of married couple with family values that seem straight out of Bush's world.