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.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Strangers on a Train

Filmmakers have wasted their time remaking Hitchcock. Films such as Dial M for Murder (1954) (as A Perfect Murder) and Psycho (1960) paled in comparison to the originals. Last night, however, while watching Strangers on a Train (1951), I thought to myself, “I would really like to see this film remade.” I don’t believe I have ever thought that about any film before, but with the right director, screenwriter and actors, I actually think that a remake could be better than the original. (Wait a second… hear that rumbling sound? That’s Hitchcock rolling over in his grave.) IMDb says that a remake is in the works, but a quick investigation on the internet revealed that is remake has been promised since 2005.I also stumbled upon rumors about remakes of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Notorious, and The Birds. Regarding these rumors, I’ll adapt the attitude that one should always have regarding Hitchcock: I’ll believe it when I see it. Otherwise, you end up thinking Mrs. Bates is still alive just because you were shown a shadowy figure in the window.

The premise of Strangers on a Train is clever: two strangers meet on a train and “exchange murders” in order to do away with motive. I found the movement from the initial suggestion of plot to the actual action to be impatient. Bruno, the mentally unstable stranger who suggests the plan, is far more complex and interesting than his counterpart. Bruno’s pathology could be pushed even further, however, by dramatizing his relationship with his father—the man who is probably responsible for Bruno’s warped attitudes in the first place. This added level of psychological complexity would ease the transition from the conversation on the train to Bruno’s decision to murder Guy’s wife, without relying heavily on the audience to infer the connection.

Guy, on the other hand, is relatively untroubled and maintains a clean conscience throughout. His evil side, the side that wanted his wife dead in the first place, is never seriously explored. Rather, the film implicitly relies on the assumption that his wife does deserve to die simply because she was a plain looking, conniving floozy. This assumption is established in the scene when Guy goes to visit Miriam at her work, whereupon she refuses to divorce him even though she was the one who requested the divorce in the first place. She is immediately irritating and unrefined, unlike Guy’s girl friend Anne, who is significantly more beautiful and graceful than Miriam. At one point, Bruno even says that Anne is a “step up” from Miriam. Without further explanation, Anne’s class and beauty render her ethical, just, and ultimately more deserving of life.

Miriam’s unattractiveness is both created and subsequently reinforced by her glasses, the lenses of which are as thick as the bottom of a bottle of Champagne. Guy stares into these glasses as he strangles her, and after her death, her glasses systematically come to signify her murder. The murder itself is filmed as a reflection in her glasses, which have fallen to the ground, creating a deliberate association between the object and the act. (As a side note, this shot is pure Hitchcock, and could never be done better than it was on the first go around.)

Later, when Bruno meets Anne’s little sister Barbara, he flashes back to her glasses, which are eerily similar to Miriam’s. In an instant, he is once again at scene of the crime, reliving the murder in his mind. When Barbara’s glasses cause a flashback for a second time, they prompt Anne to figure out Bruno’s involvement in Miriam’s death. The glasses reflect the action, recall victim, and finally, solve the case. Thusly, the glasses act as a more than a symbol of Miriam’s inferiority; they become symbol of the most important aspects of her death, the thing that the very premise of the film sought to do away with: the motive.

Bruno was caught because he was not able to sweep the motive under the carpet. In a way, Strangers on a Train also attempts to disguise the motive as something other than it is. I managed to watch the entire film without an ounce of sympathy for Miriam or remorse for her death. Only after the film ended and I began to reflect on weakness with which a remake would have to grapple, did realize that the film treats her as disposable. Just like Bruno says in the beginning, “What’s a life or two? Some people deserve to die.” Especially people who aren't so good looking.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cinema du Look

Jean-Jaques Beineix’s Diva (1981) has been re-released and is now playing at the Ritz at the Bourse. The film is credited with launching the Cinéma du Look, a French film movement in the 80’s and early 90’sthat often criticizes capitalism by showcasing spectacle. I have never seen this film, so I will surely heading to the Bourse to see Diva on the silver screen.

You are probably familiar with the Cinéma du Look through Luc Besson, who directed La Femme Nikita (1990) and The Fifth Element (1997). If you seen either of these films (I prefer The Fifth Element, by far) you know that are loud action/adventure films that spare no expense when it comes to special effects or costumes—not the type of film one typically expects come out of France. Another director of the Cinéma du Look is Leos Carax, who happens to be the director of one of my all time favorite films: Les Amants du Pont-neuf or Lovers on a Bridge (1991). Here's a picture from Les Amants. The homeless lovers are drunk on the ninth bridge where they live, and they shrink into miniature versions of themselves with an old fashioned trompe l'oeil, as if they were in a film by George Méliès.

The French New Wave of the 50’s and 60’s is credited with rebelling against “le cinéma du papa”, and I would argue that the Cinéma du Look also rebelled against the cinema of their fathers. However, their rebellion took place decades later, and therefore their style and technique were entirely different. The films use similar techniques of glossy, Hollywood blockbusters to contrast their disenfranchised characters and the various depictions of late-capitalist societies.

Since so many trends from the 80’s are resurfacing lately, maybe it is time to revisit the Cinéma du Look. Luc Besson recently release a film called Angel-A (2005), which you might call an very French adaptation of Wings of Desire or It’s a Wonderful Life, topped off with a chain smoking, immortal femme fatale. In Angel A, an angel name Angela saves a man from suicide and teaches him to love himself. She performs this feat alongside the Seine, in French Cafés, while dancing in strip clubs and by beating up gangsters. As an angel who is neither dead nor alive in a film that is both seedy and holy, she perhaps signifies the simultaneous death and rebirth of a somewhat forgotten movement that I highly reccomend. (Here's a picture from Angel-A. )

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Neo-Western

No Country for Old Men
3:10 to Yuma

The time has come to reinvent the western. With the recent release of 3:10 to Yuma, No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, I find myself wondering what has made this genre seem relevant again. 3:10 to Yuma stands alone as a relatively faithful remake of a western classic, complete with an edge-of-your-seat-shoot-out at the end. Although the film is entertaining, it does little to reinterpret the genre and I found myself distracted by the frequent close-ups, craving panoramic shots of mountains and dessert. The bad guy, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), is relatively good natured, and is one of those bad guys you are supposed to kind of want to be.

No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood, on the other hand, foreground villains as seemingly soulless as the devil himself. Through these villains, the films bring ominous predictions of doom and destruction to replace the promises of gold, honor and land that drove the cowboys of yesteryear across the plains. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), when regarded together, communicate the destruction of the solitary male hero, and the characteristics necessary for his success, and the type of adventure he craves. The last lines of the films echo each other as if they were called from opposite sides of the same rock canyon.

“I am finished.”

“And then I woke up.”

These are falsely assuring statements that unsettle from the inside out. Both Anderson and the Coen Brothers cut to black immediately following these plainly stated facts, abruptly expelling the viewer from the world that they are still struggling to understand. For both of these statements force a reevaluation of all that came before in the context with what has just transpired. Has the Sheriff woken up from his dream, his career, or his life? Has Plainview finished the murder, his career, or his life? Beyond character and plot, these lines are self-referential, and call attention to the finite nature of film. Plainview essentially delivers the message that the end-titles would: “fin.” The Sheriff calls attention to the countless films and stories that end with someone waking up in the tradition of The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland.

Western films are meant to evoke a sense of America—land, opportunity, dreams—even the Spaghetti and Sauerkraut Westerns import their tropes, aesthetics and landscapes from the American West. Films, for the most part, are cultural studies of the time they were made more so than the time in which they are set. No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood , as neo-westerns, are cinematic studies of the times. But rather that writing what I think the "message" of the films are, I will leave that for my own personal contemplation. I certainly do not think that politics should be private, but despite myself, I don’t want to wake up from the dream.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Noah Baumbach’s third feature length film, Margot at the Wedding marks his coming of age as a director. While The Squid and the Whale (2005) is a wildly charismatic, well written film, Margot at the Wedding exhibits remarkable restraint where The Squid and the Whale chooses not to. The cornerstone metaphor of The Squid and the Whale, a sculpture at the American Museum of Natural History, is very effective, but it is also intrusive and divisive. The central metaphor in Margot at the Wedding, if there is one, is the dying tree in the backyard of Margot’s sister’s house. What that tree means, however, is no more ambiguous as the squid fighting the whale, only it isn't spelled out.

In The Squid and the Whale, young Frank lays his mothers garments out on the bed as a direct reference to a similar scene Louis Malle’s oedipal tale Murmur of the Heart (1971). The Squid and the Whale explores themes of a mother’s sexuality as seen through her son’s eyes, and these themes resurface in Margot at the Wedding. However, Baumbach resist the temptation to make clever allusions, and instead allows the film to be its own, completely self-contained world. He spares no details of the thousands of tiny heartbreaks suffered within a family, and the deep seated narcissism and cruelty that are often shrouded in loving concern. Nicole Kidman delivers a shrewd performance that is difficult to watch, at times, because it seems so accurate. Jack Black, who plays Margot’s sister’s fiancé, sticks out of the cast like a sore thumb as if he was imported from another movie. I am not prepared to say that they should have found someone else for the role—I think that he served the purpose of comic relief and added texture to a gray film. However, rather than being cast against type, it seems more like the role was tailored to accommodate his type.

Margot at the Wedding is patient, subtle and dismantles you quietly as you watch it. This might be a grandiose comparison, but aspects of the film remind me of Bergman’s Persona (1966) and even Through a Glass Darkly (1961), if they were stripped of their paranoid and metaphysical concerns. They share in common a woman who becomes distorted by the seaside. She remains isolated amongst people, or perhaps becomes more isolate because she is amongst people.
I eagerly await Baumbach’s next film.


Despite my initial disinterest, I went to see Jason Reitman’s Juno last night. Turns out my instincts were right and Juno is a formulaic, unfunny attempt to capitalize on the “indie film” genre and aesthetic. Before you discount me as a cynic, please keep in mind that I have thoroughly enjoyed several other films that might be lumped into this category, such as Thumbsucker, Little Miss Sunshine and The Squid and the Whale. There is a trend lately, for characters to be defined entirely by their eccentricities, forgoing depth for slang and outfits. Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame for this, but despite what others may argue, I maintain that while his films have perhaps become excessively stylized, his characters are always psychologically complex. Juno’s best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) dons a maroon and yellow jogging outfit complete with sweatbands that are at once reminiscent of Richie Tenebaum and Napoleon Dynamite. His track team runs through frame after frame, becoming a somewhat charming motif of the film.

Juno, however, is merely a windup doll of sarcasm and pop-culture references, much like Rory Gilmore on the now defunct WB series the Gilmore Girls. While that kind of spitfire dialogue might be enough to sustain a series, it makes for a weak centerpiece of a film. It is hard to say if Juno’s character develops over the course of the film except for the realization that she is in love with her best friend and the father of her child. The would-be mother of Juno’s baby, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is too uptight and annoying for the audience to care when she decides to go it alone as a single mom. The film focuses too much attention on the bizarre, oedipal relationship between Juno and Vanessa’s husband, Mark (Jason Bateman) which never develops past the High Fidelity idiom “It’s not what you are like, it’s what you like.” The end of the film hastily tries to highlight some kind of bond between Juno and Vanessa—a bond that was not previously developing. When Vanessa frames a note from Juno (“If you’re still in, I’m still in”) in lieu of a family photo on the nursery wall, the message falls flat. Female independence? Determination? The power of motherhood? It’s too contrived for me to care.

Of course, something must be said about the soundtrack, which most prominently features tracks from Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches. Just like the film seems to be proud of its self for knowing that “kids these days” call penises and vaginas “junk” and “vag”, it also seems proud to know “what the kids are listening to” except that most of these songs came out 5-10 years ago. I am a fan of soundtracks that foreground pop songs, (e.g. The Graduate) however, even when the songs are prominent, they must serve the greater purpose. In Juno, the soundtrack merely restates the obvious sentiments of the scene: “we like each other,” or, “I’m bummed.” If you want another example of a film that foolishly forgrounds its lame soundtrack, take a look at Gardenstate. I threw up in my mouth a little when Natalie Portman told Zack Braff that the listening to New Slang by the Shins would change his life. I kind of like that song, but still--that band cannot change a damn thing.

What often makes films of this genre successful is the gracefully combining of life’s many humiliations with the humor and insight that come from living on the fringe. Juno is devoid of this essential contrast and winds up being mildly entertaining and not all that memorable.

There Will be Blood

(Contains spoilers)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood prefigures the causal relationship that dictates so much of world affairs today: where there is oil, there will be blood. A person can easily make this connection by matching the tagline with the title, however, film goes well beyond the prediction of violence, greed, and war—a that prediction might seem obvious if it weren’t made through such poetic, allegorical means. Anderson elegantly, dramatically, circles around a political message without ever stating it, and his complete avoidance of didacticism is one of the film’s many strengths.

The final sequence delivers the blood that the title promises, but there is more than one type of blood flowing throughout. The atheist Daniel Plainview accepts the blood of Christ as part of a business deal, and the blood of family taunts him throughout the film. Like the blood of Christ, blood relations remain an unconfirmed phenomenon, a hypothesis, and a superstition. Family and faith are feigned. Plainview’s son is not his son, his brother is not his brother, God’s son is not the son of god, and the peoples’ prophet is a scam. Plainview’s father and sister, who are referenced but never pictured, are either dead or absent. Thusly, the spectator is left to wonder if parts of Daniel’s personality are not pushed to full capacity. I do not mean that he is underdeveloped or incomplete, but that the awesome power of his character is at once kinetic and potential—spent but not exhausted. Even when Daniel is an old, broken alcoholic his cruelty does not cease or desist. More so than his actions, his everlasting potential to kill, pillage and destroy devastate spectators in the final moments on the film. Sitting on the floor in a pool of blood, his victim laying dead by his side, Daniel mutters, “I am finished.” This brilliant last line should do for resolutions what Antoine Doinel’s frozen face did for open endings. Daniel Plainview is neither exonerated nor absolved, and if he is truly finished, we are forced to reinterpret his quest. The resolution comes not because things are repaired, or because goals are achieved, but because the land and Daniel and finally sucked dry. This is a resolution that resolves nothing.

When the screen went black and the title dominated screen once again, I couldn’t help but feel that it said “I told you so.” Like everything else, I felt spent from a truly rewarding cinematic experience. There Will be Blood is a film that exhausts all its resources, and pushes every aspect of cinema to full capacity. The score, the performances, the cinematography are never humble. Daniel Day Lewis’s theatrically twisted portray of Daniel Plainview, Jonny Greenwoods avant interpretation of a classical score, and Robert Elswit’s uncompromising frames are all powerfully exaggerated. No screen is too big for this film.