Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Monday, October 29, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
"Singing 'Our House' in the style of a pirate."
"Hm. Let's see," I said. "'Ouuur Houuuse! In the middle of the streeeet!' Ha ha ha ha ha!"
"No, it's like 'Arrrgh Houuuuuuse! In the midool of the streeeeet!'"
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha!"
"Maybe it's funnier for longer than 30 seconds."
Heard a joke once: Man goes to the doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world, where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says: "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says "But doctor . . . I am Pagliacci."
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Jens Lekman’s new album, Night Falls Over Kortedala is the best thing I’ve heard this year. Do yourself a favor and listen to “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” right now, run to your car, drive to the record store, and run inside and buy the album. Listen to it on the way home and try not to drive your car into a pole, since your body will be convulsing with utter joy. The guy is no less than one of the greatest talents of our time—you’ll be telling your grandkids about this one.
Conversation heard at the end of the night:
GUY 2, A CHUBBY AND EFFEMINATE GAY MAN: Hey, girl! What are you up to?Now that's sassy dialogue!
THAD, A SASSY BUT NOT EFFEMINATE GAY MAN: We just chillin'.
GUY 2: What's your name, girl?
THAD: (Thinks for a minute, obviously not interested) Santa Claus.
GUY 2: Ooh! Santa, I want something big for Christmas! (Cuddles up to Thad)
THAD: Well maybe you can sit on my lap. (Turns away)
GUY 2: (Walking away) Maybe I will. You sexy, girl. Get at me later!
THAD: (Sassily) Please.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
"Please put that as your quote on your online dating profile."
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Interview with Matthew Dessem of the Criterion Contraption, Part 2
Christopher Zane: You're in LA, right? Do you work in the movie industry?
Matthew Dessem: I am in Los Angeles; I've lived in Silver Lake for the last four years. As far as being in the industry, yes and no: I work in the IT department at New Line Cinema. So although my paychecks come from a studio, very little of my day-to-day work would be different if I worked for a bank. The huge advantage to my current job is that I have access to screenplays and occasionally get to see films for free.
Did you study film in school?
Not exactly. I studied English Literature at Williams College, which has no formal film program. I took two classes in film through the English department, "The Feature Film," taught by Jim Shepard, Stephen Tifft, and Shawn Rosenheim, and a winter study course on American film in the 70s taught by Jim Shepard. Those were both criticism courses, though; I've never been behind a camera. I actually appeared in a short film that my friends Yuli Masinovsky and Dave Talone directed: I played a guy in a faux-snakeskin jacket who was playing rockabilly music on an acoustic guitar in the library. That film also featured Robin Paul, who has gone on to better (if not stranger) things. But that's the extent of my education in film.
What's your dream job?
Writing full time.
Are you from California, or did you head there as a fresh-faced youngster to become a star/star critic?
I was never fresh-faced. I mostly grew up in Tennessee, but my family moved around a lot. After college, I taught high school English in Warner Robins, Georgia for a year. I headed to Los Angeles simply because I'd never been there, and I was bored. I managed to fit most of my stuff in the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata, drove to Dallas in one day, and then drove from Dallas to Los Angeles in one 28-hour marathon--during which I couldn't put the top of my car up because everything was stacked so high. So I arrived completely exhausted, burnt to a crisp from crossing the desert at sunrise with the top down, with no friends, no job, and no place to live. I landed on my feet, but it took a while.
Do you have a favorite movie critic? Who's on the short list of working critics you regard highly?
I think the essays Jim Shepard used to write for The Believer are brilliant--they were supposed to be published in a book called Heroes in Disguise, but this has recently vanished from the McSweeney's website, so I assume something fell through. I've also always liked Roger Ebert, simply because he approaches everything on its own terms. Keith Phipps tends to enjoy the same films I do (we're both on the short list of people who liked Josie and the Pussycats). I'm afraid I've read very little serious film criticism.
Tagline: "They were three small time girls with big time dreams. Now, fate is giving the Pussycats the chance of a lifetime."
Any comment on the Pauline Kael question? That is, are movies art? I've been in a few vigorous discussions about (1) What Kael is saying in "Trash, Art, and the Movies" and (2) if she is saying that movies are trash--but sometimes good trash--is she right?
Speaking of not having read serious film criticism, I'd never read that. So thanks for sending it my way. I think Kael gets one thing dead right in that essay: the best art of any kind is playful. My least favorite films tend to be the most solemn. I was struck by this line:
The critic shouldn't need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made—which is more or less implicit.
That's exactly the opposite of what I'm interested in, frankly, because I'm trying to get better at writing movies, not be a champion of any particular artist. Not that there's some secret technique that creates wonderful films, but for my purposes, paying attention to how a film works matters.
As far as the larger question I don't get the impression that Kael believed that movies couldn't be art, but I think she felt that people were looking for art in the wrong places. Critics were (and are), so eager to put cinema (and film criticism) on par with high culture that they were tying themselves up in knots coming up with rather silly reasons to revere particular movies, finding depth in films that were all surface--but enjoyable, artful surface. If anything, the pendulum has swung too far the other way now; Ain't It Cool News tends to stick to the surface, to say the least. I also got a kick out of her displeasure at the way the Academy heaps praise on "movie[s] the industry can be proud of." She would have loved the showdown between Crash and Brokeback Mountain.
What good are lists? Should we treat critics' lists as definitive, fodder for discussion, a learning tool?
Lists are best as a learning tool; no list is definitive.
What good are "difficult" movies? If a relatively smart person can't watch a movie and enjoy it, what's the point in making it?
If no relatively smart person can watch a movie and enjoy it, then perhaps there was a point in making it (if the filmmakers learned from their mistakes), but there's no point in watching it. And a film shouldn't be difficult for the sake of being difficult. But difficult movies have the same value as difficult books: they can reward a careful viewer in ways "easier" films can't. Andrei Rublev is probably the best "difficult" film I've seen so far as part of this project; it requires a great deal of sustained attention and thought to enjoy. But it also addresses parts of human experience that aren't easy to think about or articulate. To paraphrase Neal Stephenson, life is a difficult, complicated thing, and you can't make difficult, complicated things easy by filming them differently.
The music critic Lester Bangs once said something like "Good rock and roll is anything that makes you really feel something." I think that's a bit of an oversimplification, but one thing I do enjoy about difficult movies is that the good ones often have something unique or compelling to say about the human condition. That is, difficult culture often pushes us out of a comforting place and into a new realm of understanding/feeling. Apparently our movie comfort zones usually include snappy pacing and 100-minute runtimes.
Right, and our rock song comfort zones usually include verse-chorus-verse and three-minute runtimes. But obviously there's a difference between a "difficult" movie and a "long" movie--a film that spends 100 minutes efficiently shredding your unexamined biases like The Third Man is more difficult than a three hour tourist slideshow like Lawrence of Arabia. To put it another way, breaking some sort of structural comfort zone doesn't guarantee you're making a difficult movie (though it may guarantee that some critics will believe you have). I feel like the Bangs quote may be the beginning of the end for criticism, though, because I think there's a straight line from him to Harry Knowles. It's not enough to make you really feel something -- there has to be a precision and artfulness to it, too. Even Sex Pistols songs have a formal structure.
What are your thoughts on authorial intention? Does the director have the final say on what a movie "means"?
No. For one thing, I don't buy the premise that the director is the one and only author of a film. Writers, actors, producers, directors of photography, art directors, composers, and so on, all have varying degrees of authorial status depending on the project. But in a more general sense, I think how much say any author has in a film's "meaning" varies proportionally to their competence. I think the best examples of what I'm talking about in the Criterion Collection are Paul Morrissey's films. Jeff McMahon said it quite well in a comment about Blood for Dracula:
The Morrissey films raise an interesting question. If, as he and esteemed film critic Maurice Yacowar proclaim, these films are about how society's licentiousness have led to corrupt morals, etc., then how annoyed are they that these films are generally enjoyed as pure horror-comedy spectacles? (Or do they think their message is breaking through into peoples' heads anyway?) Ideologically I find their agendas clumsy and kind of dumb, yet the movies are fun in a way that either transcends the filmmakers' intentions or skirts around them.
I imagine there's something similar going on with Ed Wood. I don't really know what he thought he was doing, but what audiences get out of his work now certainly couldn't have been his goal. Similarly, when directors discuss their own movies, they tend to have very different opinions about what their best movie is. Woody Allen has said that The Purple Rose of Cairo is his best movie. No doubt that it's great, but I don't even put it in my top five of his.
I think you get too close to anything you create. Ed Wood is an extreme example of enthusiasm in the face of overwhelming counterevidence, but yeah, you see that with just about any artist. Kevin Smith has said he has kind of a sentimental feeling for Mallrats just because so many people loathe it. I suspect Scorsese would be glad to talk about the unappreciated greatness of New York, New York.
Why do you love movies?
I love storytelling. Movies in particular appeal to me because they're a visual medium, and they act on the brain in a way that comes very close to actual experience.
Thanks for having me!
Friday, October 05, 2007
Interview with Matthew Dessem of The Criterion Contraption, Part 1
His reviews aren't just reviews. They're the product of an average of 15 hours of work per film. They're filled with penetrating analysis, trivia that you won't find on IMDB, and vivid, revealing screenshots. Reading any given review that Dessem has published in the last three years ensures that you're getting solid information and an experienced point of view. He's also a kick-ass writer.
Like many readers of Dessem's blog, I had questions for him. He's really good about replying to comments, but since I love exploiting the work of others for my own recognition, I thought I'd ask him to do an interview for my blog.
Christopher Zane: So, you're watching every movie in the Criterion Collection and blogging about it. Where'd you get the idea?
Matthew Dessem: In 2004, when I started the project, I was looking for a way to learn more about foreign film. I suppose what most people do is work down a list of directors or genres, but that didn't really appeal to me--I have Attention Deficit Disorder, so the thought of spending a month watching nothing but Fellini was terrifying. The Criterion Collection seemed like a good mix of different types of movies in a close-to-random order, so that's where I started. I began writing about the films simply as a way of keeping myself intellectually honest: thinking about how each movie was supposed to work, paying attention to what was effective and what was not. Given the chance to not engage with a difficult film, I'll usually take it, unless I have to come up with something coherent to say about it. There are other people doing similar completist projects Tara Saylor's Joyful Cooking blog and Christopher Beha's Harvard Classics blog, and at least one other person attempting to watch the whole Criterion Collection (Adam Harvey), but I wasn't aware of their blogs when I started.
What has stood out so far? Favorites, least favorites?
My favorites are the films that I wouldn't otherwise have seen. It was great fun to spend a few weeks immersed in all things Brazil, but I would gladly have done that anyway. That doesn't compare to discovering something like Andrei Rublev or The Passion of Joan of Arc which would undoubtedly have languished in their Netflix sleeves for a few weeks and then been sent back unwatched, if I hadn't made sort of a homework assignment out of them. My least favorite Criterion films are the ones that are held in higher esteem than they deserve simply because they take themselves so very seriously. And The Ship Sails On and The Night Porter both fall into that category. I also loathed Salò, but at least I wasn't bored by it.
What effect does watching these movies in order have? Any?
Mostly, it keeps me honest. If I had the choice to watch the films in any order, I would quickly jump to all the films I most want to see, and never get around to the ones that seem less interesting. That means I'd miss out on a lot of discoveries, which was one of my main goals to begin with. But jumping around from country to country and decade to decade has its own rewards: like any good 21st century citizen, I have a pretty good case of apophenia, so I'll often see connections that don't exist between films. Just to name one: in The Last Temptation of Christ, Satan tells Jesus that there's only one woman in the world: one woman, with many faces. Jay says virtually the same thing in Chasing Amy. I don't know if it means anything, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't seen those films relatively close to one another. So the short answer is: watching the films in order has no effect, unless you're intellectually lazy and paranoid. Fortunately, I am both.
I'm not sure if inter-movie references mean anything either, but it's definitely interesting to see how one film can influence another. I had an idea once that it'd be cool to watch films from newest to oldest. That is, watch Kill Bill and then watch Game of Death or The Matrix and then Drunken Master and Hard Boiled. I'm a huge fan of postmodernism though, and I think having a bit of apophenia is useful in finding those influences.
Yeah, it's definitely fascinating to see where people drew their ideas. My most recent discovery was Gorky Park: I thought the fight scenes in the Bourne movies were brilliant, and something totally new, but there's a fight in Gorky Park that's staged and shot nearly exactly the way Greengrass does his. I still think they're brilliant, but I was surprised to find that Michael Apted was doing the same thing twenty years ago.
So are you buying these or Netflixing? I mean, these things cost a bundle when they're in print, but I'm imagining you getting to Salò, looking up prices online, and finding that it costs up to $1300 and smacking your hand to your forehead.
I'm Netflixing them--when I started, I created a Netflix queue with the first 250 films in it, and I haven't altered it since. I'm also lucky enough to live within walking distance of several video stores with excellent selection, so I use those for the rarer movies: Video Hut is great because they will let you rent movies for 6 days, but I've gotten some films from Video Journeys as well. When I'm willing to drive, Rocket Video and CineFile Video both have a lot of rare stuff (CineFile was the only place I could find that would rent the Criterion version of Hard Boiled). And most of these stores have shelves specifically for Criterion DVDs, which makes the whole process pretty simple. For extremely rare discs like Salò and The Killer I've bought bootlegs, but only from sellers who were upfront that they were selling me a DVD-R, not trying to pass it off as a legitimate copy. I don't really care about it being in the original packaging; I'm not a collector. So for my purposes, an exact digital copy is fine. Of course, if I were able to buy those films for a reasonable amount of money, and if any of that money went to Criterion or the films' creators, I would have gone legit. The movies I've had to buy are the ones where there are readily available non-Criterion editions, because rental places are unlikely to stock the more expensive copy. So I'm the proud owner of Armageddon but not Andrei Rublev, Monty Python's Life of Brian but not The Wages of Fear. I'm afraid my DVD shelf makes me look like more of a philistine than I like to think I am.
You noted in your Chasing Amy review that that movie is second only to Armageddon when it comes to discussions of films that don't really deserve to be part of the Criterion Collection. You've made some good cases for the inclusion of both movies. Is there any Criterion movie that you've seen that--at the very least--could be similarly discussed? Or is Criterion's judgment right on?
Your reviews seem to be more of a discussion than a place to find a rating. It seems fitting, given that we can generally assume that Criterion movies exist because they're important. But what makes a good movie? What are your standards for critique? What kinds of questions do you find yourself wondering as you watch a movie?
What movies aren't on Criterion (yet) that you'd like to see make it to the list?
What kind of feedback have you gotten on the project so far?
Describe your preparation for reviewing a Criterion film.
I try not to do anything until I've seen the film at least twice and had some time to think about it. I think it's best to approach the movie on its own terms as much as possible. Then I watch the extras and commentary (the only thing I skip are the dubbed-in-English audio tracks), read the essay on Criterion's site, read anything else about the film I can find online. Then I go through the film one last time on a laptop, and take stills of anything that I think might be worth including in my essay. Finally, I sit down and write about it.
How long, on average, do you spend on each review?
The writing process takes about four hours. Add to that the time spent watching the film and extras, reading about it, and capturing the stills, and you're looking at about fifteen hours per movie.
I was just reading about the release of Berlin Alexanderplatz on the Criterion blog. The movie itself is like 15 hours on its own! I find myself breaking longer movies up into two or more sittings. It took me like two weeks to watch The Leopard. The movie was great, but as you said--if you're not accountable you get lazy. In terms of discussing the film, do you see a particularly harmful effect in comprehension by watching movies this way?
I always try to watch films in one sitting. Berlin Alexanderplatz is going to be an exception to that rule, but I believe it was a television miniseries to begin with, wasn't it? In general I try to do what I can to duplicate the experience of seeing a film in a theater. I find it can be difficult to get back into the right mental space after time away, especially because I'm interested in structure and pacing. I don't think splitting movies into multiple viewings is harmful to comprehension, necessarily, but it's not good for my concentration.
Do you have time to watch other non-project-related stuff? Where do your tastes lead you when you're not tackling the project?
One of the most effective things you do in your reviews is show readers what you're talking about with screenshots. What method do you use to get them?
Intervideo WinDVD 6 has a good frame-advance feature and will capture stills and save them as JPEGs. I crop and resize those images to a width of 400 pixels to fit my blog's template using Adobe Photoshop. I'm embarrassed to say that I only realized a few months ago that I could record the cropping process for each movie as a macro and repeat it ad infinitum.
[I really do love those screenshots. It's also worth mentioning that in many cases, some of the most arresting images of great movies have no better version on the web than on Dessem's blog. Check it out.]
Part two to follow! For now, check out Matthew's blog here.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Q. About two spaces after a period. As a U.S. Marine, I know that what’s right is right and you are wrong. I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period. If you refuse to alter your bullheadedness, I will petition the commandant to allow me to take one Marine detail to conquer your organization and impose my rule. Thou shalt place two spaces after a period. Period. Semper Fidelis.As someone who hates the two-space thing, I disagree with the marine, but I also wonder: Is this guy kiddding or what?
A. As a U.S. Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this. Status quo.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Idiocracy, Mike Judge
This would be a hilarious short story or idea to discuss at a party. The first 15 minutes were done well, but the rest of it seemed like what an angry college freshman would do if they were given a $80 million budget.
No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese
Dylan must be one of the greatest interview subjects of all time.
Plan 9 From Outer Space, Ed Wood
Great in its awfulness. Watch Tim Burton's Ed Wood for the full effect.
The Yakuza, Sidney Pollack
It seemed like I couldn't go wrong: Directed by Pollack, written by Robert Towne and Paul Schrader, stars Robert Mitchum. I guess I'd just rather watch Japanese movies about the Japanese.
Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville
Holy crap this was amazing. I felt Melville's Le Samouraï was lacking something, but this was incredible.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton
Some good, weird stuff here, but Tim Burton's version can't really stand up to the original. Ultimately I didn't really see the point of the remake.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston
Pauline Kael calls it "One of the strongest of all American movies," and she's probably not wrong. It's got it all, including Humphrey Bogart with a ratty beard. Awesome.
Funky Forest: First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii
I haven't seen a movie this weird or vivid since watching all 11 hours of The Cremaster Cycle. Extremely well-crafted and original. Only for the patient and adventurous.
Inland Empire, David Lynch
It's Lynch reminiscent of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive--that is, long, difficult, and rewarding. I think it's one of his best.
The Killing, Stanley Kubrick
Early early Kubrick. He was only 27, and seemingly influenced by the great noir films of the 40s. Whatever it was, he pulled it off. This is one of the best noirs I've seen lately, although it's also kind of a heist movie. Up there with Laura and Spellbound.
The Passenger, Michaelangelo Antonioni
I should probably be looking to the classic Antonioni films sometime soon, because he hasn't impressed me much so far. To be fair, I've only seen Blow-Up and this one, and there were incredible parts of each one, but they didn't strike me as brilliant. With Jack Nicholson as a journalist who takes the identity of a gun runner.
Teen Witch, Dorian Walker
Full Contact, Ringo Lam
Hyper-violent Hong Kong action from the '90s. Chow Yun-Fat is a consumate badass.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Roy Rowland
I don't really know what I was expecting. Steven Soderbergh said this was one of his favorite films of all time, and I can see the value in it, but I can't muster the same enthusiasm. Amazing sets by Dr. Seuss and no skimping on the whimsy and wonder. But it's about a kid who doesn't want to take piano lessons. Shrug.
Skidoo, Otto Preminger
In a dead heat for worst movie this month. Yes, the same Otto Preminger who directed Laura did this, but I think he was on drugs at the time. It's one of those late-'60s movies like Casino Royale or What's New Pussycat? where they throw a bunch of big-name Hollywood people together and hope for the best. This one had Groucho Marx (his last movie and the best part of this one), Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Cesar Romero, and Mickey Rooney, and music by Harry Nilsson, but it's a trainwreck. With a scene in which convicts put thousands of acid tabs in the food, and the entire prison goes on one huge trip. Hee hee.
I Shot Jesse James, Samuel Fuller
So great! Samuel Fuller directs with enjoyable bluntness. Loads of close-ups, raw dialogue, and a really good ending. Lan got me a Samuel Fuller starter pack with six of his movies for my birthday, and I can't wait to get started.
The other competitor for worst movie of the month. When I see a movie this bad that costs as much as this must have, I become aware that multiple people had to say yes to this idea for it to materialize. What were they thinking? All you need to know about this movie:
(1) All the characters are named after Beatles songs--Jude, Max, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie, Dr. Robert.
(2) The plot is entirely guided by the lyrics of Beatles songs. At one point Prudence (who is introduced to the rest of the gang by coming in through the bathroom window of an apartment) locks herself in the closet for seemingly no reason. The group sings "Dear Prudence" to her to coax her out.
(3) This is a movie made for a preview. [Watch it here.] The fact that the preview makes me (and others) as squeamish as it does should tell you something.
(4) Every song in the movie is far worse than the original recording and put into a context that makes the songs less enjoyable than they would be on their own. The I am Sam soundtrack is better, and it sucks.
(5) Speaking of the context (that is, the story the movie tells), the attempts at pathos are misguided and empty. The movie's emotional peak is bereft of feeling.
(6) The best thing about this movie are the visuals. They obviously spent a lot of money on special effects, but with the bad covers (Julie Taymor could learn something about music from Scorsese) and the lack of emotion or story, they're just fluff, and they're never original or particularly interesting.
P.S. It sucked.