Monday, December 01, 2008


Dear reader, I owe you posts on the following movies that I have seen recently:

1. Synedoche, New York (2008)
2. A Christmas Tale (2008)
3. I've Loved You so Long (2008)
4. Frost/Nixon (2008)
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (I saw a sneak preview of the film, which will be released on Christmas Day, 2008 and read the short story)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Le Tourbillion

I named this blog after the song Jeanne Moreau's character, Catherine, sings in Jules et Jim. This film did not make me love cinema. Jules et Jim made me realize that I had always loved cinema, and moreover, that cinema was a thing you could love, beyond distraction and beyond entertainment. It gave me a new way to see, and a new way to interpret. So with out further ado, I present a clip of Catherine singing "Le Tourbillion".

Rachel Getting Married

Kym (Anne Hathaway) and Rachel (Rosmarie DeWitt)

Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a truthful and poignant film. Kym returns home from rehab to attend the wedding her older sister, Rachel. The film revolves around the resentment and pain that complicates the joy of Rachel and Sidney’s union, and Kym’s profound isolation amidst the celebration. This quiet family drama, from the director of Silence of the Lambs, impressively maneuvers through a veritable minefield of sentimentality without detonating any explosions. That is to say that Rachel Getting Married is emotional and heart wrenching without clichés or pandering.

Rachel Getting Married does traverse a well-worn territory. It reminded me of Margo at the Wedding (see Tourbillion post from 1/14/08) and The Family Stone, the 2005 Christmas movie starring Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker an Luc Wilson. The Family Stone is a perfect example of a film that embraces sentimentality in order to seasonally market a movie and drive the plot. Rachel Getting Married and The Family Stone share several similarities; they center around a festive occasion and a family reunion of sorts, the characters deal with death, each other and the introduction of new people into their world. I enjoyed both movies and both made me cry. Sentimentality is not a deal breaker; good films can be sentimental. However, the film that avoids sentimentality while grappling with issues that lend themselves to sentimentality is the certainly defter than its counter part. (I say “deft” because it is the most precise word: skillful, clever, and dexterous. I include this definition not because I underestimate the intelligence of my dear reader, but because definitions are sometimes like an collapsed balloon in the middle of a paragraph, and in order to flesh out the full meaning of a sentence I feel I must inflate the balloon.)

Rachel Getting Married is filmed in a sort of documentary style and relies heavily on close-ups. The camera often moves as if it is handheld and evokes the style of a home movie. At first I thought this was a contrived authenticity, but as the story progressed, I became more involved with the characters and got used to the cinematographic style. The writer, Jenny Lumet, does a good job of eliminating needless exhibition, but a poor job of developing the character of Sydney, Rachael’s fiancé, who has very little dialogue, even though he appears in many scenes.

How Demme went from Silence of the Lambs to Rachel Getting Married is beyond me. I think it had something to do with the Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen documentaries he made in-between, but however he did it, I am glad he got there. To close, I will turn to the oft-quoted line of Tolstoy, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If you believe this to be true, then you will agree that we can and should continue to tell stories of all these unhappy families because we run no risk of repeating ourselves. Demme’s story is one for the collection.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Dirty Story

Above: Jean-Noel Picq with Jean Eustache during the filming of A Dirty Story

Disclaimer: the film I write about here is unfortunately not readily available at your local video store or netflix queue—and for that, I apologize. I have heard that is available on video in the U.S. if you look hard and get lucky.

A Dirty Story (1977), by French post-new wave director Jean Eustache, is a 50 minute short film in two parts. I was able to see it, screened in the original format, at the Berkeley Film Archive. The BFA hosts an impressive calendar of screenings and film series, which you can peruse here:

The first part of A Dirty Story, shot in 35mm, presents an actor accounting his experience of finding a peephole into the ladies’ toilet of a café he frequents. The actor, Michael Lonsdale, recounts the story to a group of three women and one man, whose faces appear quite titillated and engaged by the tale. Later, their responses confirm this reaction.

Above: Michal Lonsdale

Michael explains that the hole is at floor level, and provides a direct line of sight to the ladies’ vaginas. He quickly becomes addicted to the hole, and spends hours upon hours in the café along with other addicts, taking turns looking at the women as they pee and shit. Through the course of this experience, he finds that he is repulsed by some vaginas and turned on by others. By looking at the women’s shoes, he matches the vaginas to their owners, and is surprised to find he is often attracted to the vaginas of ugly women, and repulsed by the vaginas of beautiful women. This comes as a kind of revelation to Michael; that all the conventional standards of beauty are trumped by the true indication of attraction. At no point does he describe what physical features he is attracted to—size, shape, color, coiffure, etc. Eventually, he becomes so obsessed by the hole that he decides to quit it, cold turkey.

The second half of the film is shot in 16mm, and presents a different man recounting the same story. The stories are almost identical—there are some small discrepancies in phrasing, but all the major and minor details are the same. The significant difference is that the second part is technically a documentary. The man telling the second dirty story, Jean-Noël Picq, is the man whom the story actually happened to. His audience is comprised of three different women and one different man, who find the story generally less scintillating but not entirely objectionable.

The premise of this film provides me with a hefty amount of critical fodder and I will try to be as organized as possible in my response. It seems to me that the three major notions at play are as follows.

1. Voyeurism and the pleasure and politics of seeing.
2. Eroticism, including everything that may fall under this umbrella, such as sexuality, sex (as in male and female) and sex (as in fucking).
3. Subjectivity and truth in story telling.

I must admit that I had to consciously withhold any objections to the story arising from on-the-spot feminist interpretation. It would have been foolish (and easy) to write A Dirty Story off as a misogynist fantasy, and I do believe that my understanding of the film is more profound as a result of this initial restraint. But since the film is primarily men talking about anonymous women’s vaginas, I would be remiss not to look at it through a feminist lens. Michael and Jean lament that the hole allowed them to see women’s vaginas in an immediate and direct fashion that is not replicated in normal life, even during consensual sex. They also remark that women do not expose themselves in public the way male flashers are want to whip their cock out on the subway train. In addition, they both describe a beautiful women with a disgusting vagina who catches on to the scheme, and becomes more ashamed and humiliated than she would have been had she been raped (their words, not mine).

In all of these remarks, there is the implicit condemnation of women for being unduly ashamed of their vaginas. The argument being, that the sex organs are ultimately responsible for true sexual attraction, and therefore should be made more accessible in order to determine sexual compatibility. However, there lies an inherent contradiction in criticizing women for being ashamed of their vaginas while also criticizing the vaginas themselves. In doing so, Michael and Jean play directly into the fears of many women—that their vaginas are ugly.

The counter argument (and maybe Eustache’s argument), is that because Jean and Michael do not provide a physical description that would objectively determine what makes a vagina ugly or beautiful, repulsive or attractive; subjective experience remains the only criterion. It would therefore be irrelevant to provide any physical criteria, which would inevitably change from subject to subject.

Secondly, I would like to take to task is the very notion of shame; as it is incomplete. In Jean and Michael’s comments about the woman who uncovers their ruse they circle around, but do not speak directly to, the other important factor at play: violation. Rape and voyeurism are two forms of sexual violation, and their comments suggest that this particular woman was better equipped to deal with rape, perhaps by a combination of her own personal experiences and her societal experiences. I find this idea utterly absurd. The differences between physical and visual violation are enormous, and it is foolish to create a hierarchy of the two experiences. Unlike physical violation, visual violation can go undetected by the violated, and it is a far different thing to discover having been violated then to experience the violation as it occurs.

Shifting gears, I would like to address the fictional versus the autobiographical account of the story. In the end, the two accounts are the same. The second rendition has closer ties to actual experience, but that one is real and one is fact and one is fiction ultimately bares no effect. All stories and all storytelling share the same relationship to experience whether or not they occurred to the person relaying the tale. Michael tells the dirty story, and it is untrue insofar as it does not apply to his own life. However, it is true insofar as it applies to Jean’s life. On a larger scale—a much larger scale, actually—on an infinite scale, one could argue that all stories have been the real experiences of someone, somewhere, and therefore, all stories are "true".

The “down the rabbit hole” motif of the story also points towards infinity as it relates to the subjective experience. The hole, which begins as a finite thing, opens up an infinite world. Michael/ Jean says that it seemed that the hole was created first, and then the door, and then the café around it. This, going from the specific to the general, is truly a poetic scenario. As if sin and temptation were created before man even existed; as if sex was created first, and then the body, and then the world around it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

I am in Oakland right now, and last night I went to see Vicky Christina Barcelona with my pals, John and Mary, at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater. The thing about speakeasy theaters is they serve beer, wine and food (including pizza, popcorn, sandwiches and veggie burgers). Tickets were five dollars and food was reasonably priced. Philly seriously needs one of these places.

We ordered a carafe of wine and settled in to watch Woody Allen’s latest flick. The wine proved to be a good choice, not only because the characters on screen drank lots of wine, but also because the alcohol helped the rough edges of the plot and dialogue go down a little bit easier. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were wonderful and delivered their lines naturally. While they both played stereotypically fiery Spaniards, they nevertheless created personas for themselves that went beyond what was written on the page.

I continue to be confused, however, why Scarlett Johansson is Woody Allen’s new muse. (He went from Diane Keaton to her?) She continually gives stiff, two-dimensional performances that are softened only by her full lips and womanly curves. In a strange twist, however, the most annoying person on screen was not Johansson, but her even more wooden co-star, Rebecca Hall, who played Vicky. She often spoke like she was reading a teleprompter scrolling lines she had never seen before.

Basically, the story was enjoyable, but not really insightful or funny. In the past, Woody Allen’s movies have said (or at least quoted) important ideas about human relationships, and I miss those little nuggets. Definitely, Vicky Christina should have been R rated to allow Allen to play up the main thing the movie has going for it: sexy people having sex with each other.

Woody Allen is at his best when he pays homage to his own neurosis and his own city. Unfortunately, he exhausted that topic (or at least his audience’s patience for it. Did you see Anything Else staring Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs?) I am glad he is still making movies and exploring new actors, cities, and genres, but this time he just wasn’t at his best. I will give him another chance though, and another one after that, because, com'on, he’s Woody Allen.

A Girl Cut in Two

A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol, the director of A Girl Cut in Two, is the master of bourgeois evil and mystery. The dark secrets and dirty habits harbored by the wealthy propel his plots calmly through their twists and turns.

A Girl Cut in Two stars Ludivine Sagnier, a woman whose depth as an actor has continued to be revealed since she starred in The Swimming Pool, and more recently in our generation’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a lovely musical about young love and sex, called Love Songs. Sagnier’s character, Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (translated as Gabrielle Snow), is an attractive weatherwoman who is ogled by all men she meets. She is first presented to us in close-up, with heavy make up, smiling a fake smile, and charming her television audience with news of sun and clouds. While her on -stage persona is not that of her real life, to the audience, she nonetheless exists in contrast to all who surround her. She is young, they are old. She is impulsive, they are calculating. She moves like water, they, like vodka from the freezer.

The central conflict is Gabrielle’s affair with the sexually liberated, bourgeoisie novelist, Charles Saint Denis, and her jealous, filthy rich suitor, Paul Andre Claude Gaudens. It is no coincidence that Gabrielle’s name evokes both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for she is the heroine in this modern day, dystopian fairy tale. Gaudens is the prince, seeking to sweep her off her feet and away to the family castle. Gabrielle is the reluctant princess; average in status but beautiful. Gaudens’ mother functions as the bad witch, and Gabrielle’s mother is the benevolent queen. All these conventions are turned upside-down in modern day. Princes are heirs to pharmaceutical fortunes instead of kingdoms, and they are perverted and jealous instead of noble and chivalrous. The virginal princess is everything but, actually eager to sleep with a married man, and occasionally, to do it in front of his friends. Furthermore, there is no archetype in the fairytale for Charles Saint Denis’ character, and because he has no place in the formula he spoils the happy ending before the story even starts. Needless to say, Gabrielle’s affair goes horribly wrong and then get worse, leaving the poor girl to pick up the pieces.

Through all of the insincerity and betrayals, the story remains interesting, but never crosses over into territory we haven’t seen before.

However, the final moments of the film are unlike any that proceed it, and I was left wondering whether the last scene was a gesture of brilliance or an inability to self edit. Eventually, I decided it didn’t matter. In his review of the new movie Blindness, A. O. Scott cited this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.” At Scott’s prompting, this got me wondering if all films are allegories because they necessarily speak in the picture-language.

In the last scene of the film, Gabrielle is her uncle’s lovely assistant in his magic act. During the performance, Gabrielle lies down on a table with a large circular saw overhead. What follows is nothing if not Coleridge’s definition of allegory: Gabrielle is literally cut in two. The abstract notion of being torn in opposite directions is translated into the picture-language.

I asked myself why Chabrol would make such a literal and obvious gesture. Here is a possible explanation. The allegory is complicated by the fact that when Gabrielle is cut in half, the bisection is a performance and an illusion. All good allegories should allow the reader or the audience to look at the thing the allegory represents with a new perspective. When the final scene is applied retroactively to the film, the title is revealed to be misleading. In order to be metaphorically “cut in two”, a person must be conflicted. At no point in the story is Gabrielle conflicted. When she wants Charles over Paul, she acts on it. When Charles makes himself unavailable, she settles for Paul, not because she is unsure of what she wants, but because she knows exactly what must be done. All the while she harbors feelings for Charles, saying definitively that he is “the only man she will ever love.” This is an expression of conviction, not conflict. She experiences no moral dilemma and no crisis of conscience. She is never tortured by the incongruity of her own desires, only the incongruity between hers and Charles’.

Ultimately, that Gabrielle is whole is no great revolution. Along the way, she has garnered some undeserved pity from the audience. Finally, she exists as she was first presented, on display. After the magic trick is over, Gabrielle stands alone on stage to bow to the audience. The credits role over a frozen image of her face, smiling proudly. Like Antoine Doinel’s face at the end of 400 Blows, the frame carries false significance. The audience searches for resolution because it the ultimate moment, but the ending is arbitrary. The story has another life outside of the picture, but the information stops here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Burn After Reading

Yesterday night I had the pleasure of seeing the Coen Brother’s new film, Burn After Reading. For uninteresting reasons, I haven’t made it out to the movies much lately, and this was a great film to choose for my return. Incidentally, the last film I saw in this particular theater was the Coen brothers’ previous film, No Country for Old Men. So much has changed since then, and I don’t mean the Coen brothers winning an Oscar. If I were asked to explain it in general terms, I would say that there is energy in the air that is caused by a depressed country, an overwrought media, and a hunger to uncover what is at the heart of this uncertain puddle we are standing in. Things have been dark and bloody for sometime, and now they seem to be about to tip into the realm of the absurd. Sarah Palin could be a breath away from leading out country. Need I say more? I bring it up because in a very special Coen brothers way, Burn After Reading is a reflection of this current mood.

The film operates much like a centrifuge: characters spin wildly around an empty center. Linda Litsky, played by Frances McDormand, is obsessed by “her surgeries”, a set of cosmetic procedures that will finally allow her to reinvent herself. Brad Pitt plays Chad Feldheimer, a bumbling, over-happy bimbo who does nothing by exercise and hydrate. George Clooney is a paranoid sex addict, Osborne Cox, played by John Malkovich, is a drunk, angry, ex-CIA hack. Tilda Swinton is, to put it in the screenwriter’s terms, “a cold stuck up bitch.” Yet, somehow we like them, or at least like watching them. The utter stupidity and shamelessness of the film’s protagonists, Linda and Chad, is disguised as vulnerability and naivety. This is precisely why we like them. All of us vulnerable, naïve members of the audience only wish we could be so shameless about our own stupidity. We could continue to run around like chickens with our heads cut off and never have to realize it is our own damn fault.

It is pretty cute that the only dollar amount ever mentioned is the $40,000 that are missing from Osborne Cox’s checking account, thanks to his disgruntled wife. The cost of the cosmetic surgeries that motivate Linda to launch the ridiculous chain of unfortunate events that constitute the movie’s plot is never mentioned. Money is at the bottom of all the insanity, but amidst the attempted extortions and black mail no one ever mentions how much. (Compare this to No Country for Old Men, where the suitcase full of $2,,XXX,XXX,XXX was pretty much responsible to everything).

Chad and Linda desperately want to be part of something: the larger system of intelligence, international politics, adventure, whatever. The Coen brothers never doubt that the establishment exists, nor do they infer that it should be overthrown. Instead they reveal the vacuum of emptiness at its center. True, there is a system that encases this emptiness. Yes, someone is always watching. Yes, information is being recorded and reported. Yes, people everywhere are doing the jobs they were hired to do. But for what? No duh, for naught.
Against all expectations, the fact that there is not good reason for anything that is happening comes as a consistent relief. When the screen cuts to black, the emotion I feel is appreciation. I appreciate how much the film has made me laugh. I appreciate that the Coen brothers have a consistent yet evolving point of view. I appreciate that people in America are still making good movies, despite (or, maybe because of?) all those Palin supporters.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is nothing if not a triumph of aesthetic choices, of fluidly moving camerawork, rigorous framing and sustained long shots that allow you to explore the image rather than try to catch hold of it."

It was this passage, in Manohla Dargis's New York Times review of 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days, that made me want to see the film: so rarely does a director value aesthetics as equal to plot, especially when the plot involves human rights issues, that my interest was peeked and my ticket was as good as bought.

Recently, I told a successful director that I wanted to be film critic, and he said, "one of the good ones, I hope," intimating that there exists a camp of 'bad' film critics who are out to crush the hopes and dreams of filmmakers. The more I think about it, the more problems I see with that statement. For now, I will make the following retort. Dargis's insightful, well written review sold this film to me, not the marketing. Whomever was in charge of making the American previews for Christian Mingiu's film did it a great disservice. The preview showcased fast paced editing and astonishing plot twists that simply do not exist in the actual film. 4 Months is not a thriller, or a cheep horror film. Often filmed in real time and without any non-diegetic music, 4 Months a patient, unflinching depiction of a day in the life of two female college students, the day that Otilia helps her friend Gabita get an abortion. The supreme mise en scene and inspired framing underscore the true triumph of the film: an unequivocal sea-change in the perspectives of the two central characters.

I have been paying special attention to last lines lately, and 4 Months brings another zinger. Before the screen goes to black Otilia says, "You know what we are going to do? We are never going to talk about this again." These words are both a promise and an order, a I promise I believe she will keep. Although they will never discuss it, their experience has gotten under their skin, and will change their sense of themselves as women, as citizens, as students, as friends, forever. If you were unsure of the gravity of the situation, Otilia clears up any confusion. Their experience is among the worst travesties and the most devastating injuries--it is unspeakable. But rather than dramatizing the burden this secret will become, Mingiu relies on the actual events to convey the affect the secret will have, the revelations it has caused.

The conclusion of Dargis's review stayed with me as I watched the film. She wrote:

In interviews, Mr. Mungiu has resisted some of the metaphoric readings of his film (say, as an attack on the Ceausescu regime) and resisted making overt declarations on abortion. I’ve read more than once that the film is not about abortion (or even an abortion) but, rather, totalitarianism, a take that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” This isn’t to say that “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” isn’t also about human will and the struggle for freedom in the face of state oppression, only to suggest that such readings can be limited and limiting. Mr. Mungiu never forgets the palpably real women at the center of his film, and one of its great virtues is that neither do you.

In my opinion, invoking Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation is about the least useful thing a person can do when writing about or discussing a film. I say "invoking" because it is a little like pleading the fifth, remain silent, lest your opinions incriminate you. In an effort to resist Dargis's invocation, I tried to find an interpretation that reconciled the public with the private, the political with the social, and the metaphorical with the literal. The answer I found allows 4 Months to be about totalitarianism , feminism, and class while still being about character, relationships and identity.

In a word, it is a film about options. The options that are available, the choices made in response, and the implications of those choices. Options are as much personal and they are political. They are defined (and limited) by institutions of money, sex, race, and the powers that be. After the options are identified, what follows is defined by personal morality, bravado, intellect and the degree to which one is willing to rebell. After Gabita's abortion, Otilia reviews the options they were presented with, and asks why Gabita made the choices she did. I series of mistakes left them cornered, ultimately causing them to make the extreme sacrifices of trading sex for an abortion. As Dargis said, audiences and directors alike resist drawing a "metaphorical" (read: political) conclusions because it jeopardizes the humanity of the story ("forgets the palpably real women at its center") However, I refuse to except that such a plot point does not have political implications. The moment when Otilia and Gabita decide to sleep with the abortionist brings to the forefront how they are marginalized and attacked as women, how their options have been so severely limited and that their reaction has been to detach themselves from their own bodies. (Here I was reminded of the French film, Baise Moi, in which a women explains why she shows no emotion while being raped. She said something like, "They want to steel from my cunt, so I keep nothing in there worth steeling.")

It strikes me as a profound notion that options are the cross section of identity and environment, of interpretation and identification. Thusly, it becomes impossible to pull the rug out from under a political interpretation by claiming that it is "limiting". Both readings of the film that Dargis presented are deeply interconnected--the metaphors with the real women and the real women with the metaphors.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I first read Persepolis freshman year of college in my comparative politics class. Besides a few articles, Persepolis was our only text with which to study the Iranian revolution. I remember asking my professor what the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims were, and she said she didn’t know. I left the class with an understanding of the historical context of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel that was as grey as the illustrations themselves.

Although Persepolis is a firsthand account—or even a “primary document”, I am always wary of art being used to teach history. I can recall a slew on instances through my education when teachers relied on works of literature and film to teach history (All Quiet on the Western Front to study WWI and Glory to study the civil war are the two that immediately come to mind). While I was always grateful for the breaks in routine, I have since arrived at the position that accurate, historical representation should not be a burden placed on art.

By revisiting Persepolis in the theater rather than in the classroom, I was able to give more attention to the illustrations and the story, rather than the context. Although the Iranian revolution and subsequent war is perhaps the most significant cause of change in Marjane’s life, it remains a backdrop for herself discovery and coming of age. Reading Persepolis in a way that foregrounds the story as a history lesson necessarily overlooks the novel’s heart.
Interestingly, combining both Satrapi’s novels, Persepolis and Persepolis II, lent itself to a familiar cinematic narrative ark: the film begins in the present, flashes back to the past, and works its way back to the present again. For the most part, the transition from graphic novel to film was smooth and natural.

As a self proclaimed cinephile, I love talking about the things that film can do that no other art form can. The combination of sound, movement, and image is a special elixir that has unparalleled effects on the heart, eyes, ears, and mind. However, graphic novels have a one magical trick that films cannot perform: simultaneity. A page of a graphic novel almost always shows multiple frames per page. The reader first looks at the entire page, and has an impression of the images as a set. Then, he or she proceeds to read each individual frame sequentially. In film, however, the images must always come after one another. Even if the screen we split up into several images like the pages of Satrapi’s novel, it would not be able to achieve this simultaneous effect unless it sacrificed movement. Movement is the essential, defining factor of motion pictures, (or in this case, animation) and therefore cannot be sacrificed. Below is an image from the graphic novel, which features frames of different sizes--another setback for cinema, which must maintain the same aspect ratio for all frames.

In the inevitable contest called: “The book was better”, I’d say score one for the book. Add the voices of Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux—score one for the film. And thus the magicians battle it out, book v. movie, matching trick for trick. I suppose the point isn’t who wins, but the spectacles that are produced along the way.