Archive for January, 2005

Movies, Conversation, and More

Just a quick update to thank everyone for their suggestions for my film syllabus. I decided to drop Kane for now and to teach Maltese Falcon instead, mostly because I haven’t had a good excuse to watch it in about five years, and it should set up the class discussion on Godard’s Breathless nicely. I’ve also decided to go with Harlan County, USA as a counterpoint documentary to The Thin Blue Line. But I’m also glad to have themany reminders and suggestions regarding experimental and avant-garde film. I’m planning to show Meshes of an Afternoon, and if time permits, Man With a Movie Camera. I’ll work in clips of other experimental films where possible.

At any rate, there are several film topics worth mentioning here. First, I’ll happily plug The Conversation, a new group-authored film blog where several of my favorite film bloggers have been talking passionately about film and film criticism. It’s modelled loosely on Slate’s Movie Club, but looks a whole lot cooler to me.

In other news, Dr. Strangelove is coming to Atlanta this week. I’ve never seen it on the big screen, so I’m really looking forward to the experience.

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The More Things Change…

Last year I linked to this montage of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., in honor of his birthday. One year later, King’s words and the juxtaposed images from past and present still seem relevant.

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Reel Changes

I’ve just been offered the opportunity to teach an Introduction to Film course this semester, so I’m doing some very last-minute planning/organizing. The class will probably look a lot like the Intro to Film course I taught this past summer. Here’s a tentative schedule, but because I’m still working out the details, I’m open to suggestions, though I’d like to have the syllabus etched in stone by no later than Friday.

Week One: Early Cinema, Edison shorts via American Memory Project (ca. 1900).
Week Two: Narrative, North by Northwest (1958)
Week Three: Mise-en-scene, Blonde Venus (1932)
Week Four: Cinematography, The Third Man or Touch of Evil.
Week Five: Editing, The Harder They Come
Week Six: Sound, The Conversation or Meet Me in St. Louis (1974 or 1944)
Week Seven: Narrative, Citizen Kane (1941), but I may try something else here.
Week Eight: Documentary, The Thin Blue Line (1988), or other Errol Morris doc.
Week Nine: Genre I, His Girl Friday, tentative.
Week Ten: Genre II, Lady from Shanghai
Week Eleven: Indie Cinema, Do the Right Thing (1989)
Week Twelve: Run Lola Run (1998), also tentative.
Week Thirteen: Blade Runner (1982), or Dark City
Week Fourteen: Chungking Express or, more likely (because I’ve taught it before), Tampopo.

The plans get pretty tentative at around week five or six, simply because I’d like to spend at least one more week covering documentary. I’d also like to work in several films not listed, especially Breathless, which I haven’t taught in a few years (I’d also like to pair Breathless with a Bogart film, maybe Maltese Falcon). Finally, I’m resisting the film studies imperative that you have to teach Citizen Kane in an introduction to film class. Would I be causing my students tremendous harm if I skipped Kane just for one semester? Any film titles that you, my readers, can suggest would be much appreciated.

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Hotel Rwanda

In many ways, Hotel Rwanda (IMDB) is a difficult film to review. Terry George’s powerful film asks its viewers to confront the Rwanda genocide in 1994 when the Hutu militia slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis over the course of just 100 days. More importantly, the film reminds its viewers that the West essentially turned a blind eye towards these atrocities. During one crucial scene, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) listens to a radio broadcast as a US State Department official insists on defining what’s happenening as “acts of genocide” rather than “genocide,” as if such a distinction justifies inaction. This critique of inaction by Western powers is also embodied in two relatively minor characters, a photojournalist played by Joaquin Phoenix and a Canadian UN Colonel (Nick Nolte), both of whom know that the media images of the brutality will not shake European and American audiences from their complacency or shame them into action. This abandonment is best illustrated in ascene in which Paul calls the Belgian hotel owner (Jean Reno), who sits comfortably in his brightly lit, calm office, while Paul, on the other end of the line, begs him for help. In that regard, the film seems to offer what amounts to a mild self-critique, acknowledging that audiences may be deeply moved by a film like Hotel Rwanda, but will likely do little to change the causes that might have contributed to genocide.

Hotel Rwanda focuses on the story of Paul, a Hutu hotel manager at the Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hotel. We also learn early in the film that his wife and her family is Tutsi. In the film’s early scenes, Paul is shown as a stylish, competent hotel manager, someone who knows that the gift of a good cigar or the best whiskey will curry more favor than a monetary bribe. He’s always impeccably dressed and manages to work between all of Rwanda’s conflicted communities. When the genocide begins suddenly, in response to a code phrase repeated on the radio by a jingoistic radio broadcaster, Paul’s diplomatic skills–and his storehouse of bribes–allow him to work a minor miracle, housing over 1,000 Tutsi people in the hotel for the duration of the genocide. Paul’s actions prompted many reviewers to read Paul as an African Oskar Schindler, a description that seems, as Cynthia Fuchs notes, “partly right,” but Hotel Rwanda, in my reading, is far less sentimental than Spielberg’s film, using Paul’s story to criticize Western inaction rather than to celebrate the triumph of the individual over great odds.

The film’s approach to the Rwanda genocide is not without controversy: George chooses to show the brutality only at a distance, and instead we often see only the effects of the brutality, as in one crucial scene in which Paul leaves his hotel compound for supplies. But I’m not sure it would be possible to convey the sheer brutality of what happened in a feature film. Any attempt to show the violence would fall short. Others have criticized the film for its “happy ending,” the film’s reliance on the codes of a Hollywood thriller. Cynthia Fuchs notes that the technique of focusing on a single character’s story “makes the story comprehensible and tragic, but also barely references the broad structures that create such atrocity.” But in many scenes, these techniques amplify the horror, particularly in a sequence early in the film when Paul instructs his wife to throw herself and their children from the roof of the hotel rather than face death by machete.

There’s no question that Hotel Rwanda is an important film, one of the first to call attention to the humanitarian crises in Africa (many discussions of the film have made reference to the genocide in Sudan). While the decision to focus on a single character, a survivor like Paul Rusesabagina, may make the story more palatable to western viewers, the film clearly illustrates how the Tutsis were abandoned by the West.

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Time Travel and Philosophy

Just a quick link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on time machines (via Jonathan Goodwin).

By the way, I saw Hotel Rwanda last night and highly recommend it. I’ll write a longer review later tonight, perhpas, when I’ve actually managed to get some work done.

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Warhol Was Right

My on-going fascination with reality TV continues. This morning’s New York Times features an article on the upcoming season of The Surreal Life, a show that I used to enjoy watching occasionally on the WB (unfortunately the show will now appear on VH1, which means I won’t get to see it regulalry). The third season will focus on the “unlikely romance” between Public Enemy performer Flavor Flav and “Nordic giantess” Brigitte Nielsen. Worth noting: the article emphasizes fans’ responses to this “unlikely” romance, specifically athe discussion site, FansofRealityTV.com, suggesting that it defies credibility, with one viewer complaining, “VH1 must think I’m a fool to believe that….At what point can we stop calling it reality TV?” Former Full House star David Coulier, however, is convinced that the romance is real. In other news, GHW notes that Nielsen will also be appearing on Britain’s Celebrity Big Brother with Germaine Greer.

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Cinematic Educations

I found Krista’s discussion of her “cinematic eductaion” compelling, in part because her experiences echo my own. Like Krista, I missed a lot of movies as a kid because of conservative religious values. Although most of my classmates saw Star Wars in the theater, often dozens of times, I never saw the film until years later on TV. My parents were also concerned to shield me from movies and TV shows that featured what she calls “occult” overtones. Thus, I was “protected from” films and TV shows ranging from He-Man and The Smurfs to The Wizard of Oz, which I never even saw until I taught the film at Purdue in the mid-90s. The undergraduate college I attended had in the past discouraged movie-going, and students who attended that college were ostensibly prohibited from seeing R-rated movies. How they’d enforce such a rule, I can’t imagine, but I could imagine a version of Footloose, substituting cinephilia for dancing, with Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, and the gang crossing the state line to see Last Temptation of Christ.

But attending graduate school with a group of film buffs and reading Deleuze’s books on cinema really directed my cinematic eductaion. A great video store in West Lafayette helped. One week I’d watch Godard. The next, Truffaut or Ozu. This education was particularly focused because from 1998-2002, I had no television reception. My TV served only to play videotapes (or later, DVDs). So I have little memory of most mid-late 90s TV shows, other than the ones I watched on DVD, such as The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both of which I now find it difficult to watch on TV, preferring to see them on DVD.

I can and do still enjoy pop stuff, too (of course), although in the recent past I’d usually get my pop fix when I would wash my clothes at a local laundromat where they played movies on screens above the washers and dryers. That’s where I’d usually catch bits and pieces of the Disney or children’s films I wouldn’t rent on my own, and the movies did offer a welcome distraction from the tedium of folding clothes. But what strikes me about my cinematic education is how “accidental” it seems, how certain movies or filmmakers come across my radar completely by accident of timing. Or how parental and religious bans still work on me in complicated ways. I have no reason to think that occult films are bad, morally or aesthetically, but I’m still less likely to watch occult films than I otherwise might be.

I mention these details because I’ve been reflecting a bit lately about why I chose to study film and about how and when I watch film (and TV to a lesser extent) might inform that, in large part because I’ve been reading Anna McCarthy’s book, Ambient Television, in which she explores the role of TV outside the home, including an extended section on the relationship between TV and waiting (TV in doctor’s waiting rooms, laundromats, etc). I’d planned to write a longer entry on McCarthy’s book, but a few too many distractions are getting in the way. The book has certainly helped me to rethink some of the questions I’ve been thinking about regarding spectatorship and public/private divisions, which I’ll hopefully be able to develop more in a couple of articles I’ve been writing.

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Documenting War

Morning coffee reads: Reading Cinema Minima this morning, I was reminded that Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, Why We Fight (IMDB), will be playing at Sundance. According to Cyndi Greening, Jarecki’s film “makes a powerful case for the economic NEED for war to sustain our hegemony and standard of living.” The title clearly refers to the World War II film series, commissioned by George Marshall’s War Department, that used the talents of filmmakers such as Frank Capra to justify the war, so I’ll be interested to see how Jarecki riffs off of this earlier material.

Eugene Jarecki, the younger brother of Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki, also made the 2002 documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which I found to be a little too transparently partisan at the time, although the political work of interrogating Kissinger’s actions is certainly vital.

Greening, a film professor at Mesa Community College, has a personal blog in addition to her contributions to Cinema Minima.

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Runaway Jury

I’ve just spent the last two days serving on a jury for a civil case, hence the recent blog silence. I actually mildly enjoyed serving, although some of the medical testimony got a bit tedious. Like GHW, I’m in temporary limbo, waiting for the new semester to start, and serving on a jury only threw my already disoriented time schedule even further off course.

I’m still coming to grips with what I found so interesting about it, but certainly it’s difficult to participate on a jury without viewing that experience outside the lens of courtroom drama. Even though jury deliberations lasted about fifteen minutes total, I couldn’t avoid thinking about Twelve Angry Men. The lawyer for the defense seemed like a character out of a John Grisham movie, and even the judge reminded us on a couple of occasions that “this isn’t Court TV.”

It’s also strange to have such intense interaction with twelve strangers over the course of two days and then just walk away. Hearing the foreman of the jury read the verdict also seemed anti-climactic. I think I expected orchestral music to be piped in as the verdict was read and to see stronger emotional reactions to it. Also intersting to see how the various jurors reacted to various pieces of evidence; what seemed important or credible to some of the other jurors seemed less convincing to me (and vice versa).

But the good news is that jury duty (not to mention the winter holiday) has given me an excuse to be a little more self-indulgent than usual in my TV and movie watching. I finally rented the first season of The Office last night, and I’m really enjoying it. Also got my weekly High School Reunion fix (still very much addicted). But I also caught, and recommend Bruno Dumont’s dark and challenging film, Twentynine Palms. A little too low energy to write a longer review right now, but while it’s a difficult film to watch, philosophically I think it’s pretty intersting.

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My Top Ten for 2004

Inspired by several other “best of 2004” lists (Rashomon and Green Cine among others), I’ve decided to list some of my favorite films of the year. Unlike George of A Girl and a Gun (who has a great list of films), I’m a closet fan of ten-best lists. Even though I know that such lists are usually arbitrary, I read them voraciously, usually with the hope that I’ll discover a film that I’ve missed or that I’ll find a popular or critcially panned film worth giving a second chance. Like George, I’m not a professional critic (and in my case I don’t live in a film center), so I don’t get to see everything. But I have been thinking about this list over the last few days, so here’s my list, in semi-chronological order, of some of the films I liked in 2004:

  1. Everyday People: I caught Jim McKay’s film at the Atlanta Film Festival and really liked McKay’s deft treatment of an ensemble cast. The film weaves between more than a dozen characters, all of whom are conflicted about the closing of a family restaurant in Brooklyn. Limiting the story to the restaurant’s final 24 hours gives the film a narrative force it might otherwise lose.
  2. Reconstruction: Another favorite from the Atlanta Film Festival, Christoffer Boe’s meditation on time and memory was one of the most intellectually compelling films I saw all year.
  3. Control Room: One of the best in a great year of documentaries. Lieutenant John Rushing and Al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim and producer Samir Khader provide one of the more compelling takes on news reporting I saw all year.
  4. Before Sunset: I’m joining the bandwagon on this one, I know, but Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have managed to create some of the most unforgettable characters of the year.
  5. The Corporation: I never had a chance to revisit my initial review of Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s powerful and sometimes wickedly humorous take on American capitalism.
  6. Bright Leaves: Ross McElwee’s latest autobiographical documentary, a reflection on cinema, photography, memory, and (to a lesser extent) tobacco, captivated me. This might be a personal fascination: I connect pretty deeply with McElwee’s ambivalence about the south and his fascination with cinema and memory. The scenes featuring his film buff distant cousin also captivated the cinephile in me.
  7. Primer: Another great film about time. I’m a sucker for time travel films, and Shane Carruth’s $7000 debut provided one of the best mindfucks of the year.
  8. Undertow: I haven’t seen David Gordon Green’s film on many other lists, so I’m guessing this is a personal obsession. Loved the moody cinematgraphy and the narrative pacing. Deel (Josh Lucas) is one of the creepiest villains I saw in 2004.
  9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I never did review the latest Gondry-Kauffman collaboration, but the film’s treatment of memory and lost love was funny and smart. I also really dug Kate Winslet’s hair.
  10. The Saddest Music in the World: Again, no full review, and I only caught it on DVD, but one of most visually inventive films I’ve seen in the last five years.

Honorable mention: The Dreamers, Collateral, Spider-Man 2, Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, I ♥ Huckabees, Sideways, The Incredibles, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Closer.

Films I wish I’d seen: Tarnation, Hotel Rwanda, MoolaadĂ©, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Bad Education, Good Bye Lenin and The Five Obstructions. Many of these films never made it to Atlanta (or left town before I could see them). Many others I simply have no excuse for not seeing. I might come up with some other “awards” later this week if the mood strikes.

Update: I completely forgot Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, another great film I never properly reviewed, which should probably be in or close to my top ten.

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Random Film Notes

Found a couple of cool film notes while doing some procrastination this afternoon. First, instead of releasing a Tarnation soundtrack on CD, Tin Drum Recording has released Max Avery Lichtenstein’s original music online as MP3s (via eugonline).

Also interesting: the 60 Minutes profile of Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai (link via indieWire insider). The interview coincides with the release of Rai’s Hollywood debut, Bride and Prejudice, which will be hitting art house theaters soon. The 60 Minutes report, summarized here, was a pretty decent introduction to Bollywood, noting in particular that India’s film studios produce more films every year than Hollywood, but the report also “sold” Bollywood primarily in terms of Rai’s beauty and Bollywood’s “squeaky-clean” storylines (kissing cannot be shown in Bollywood films). The interview with Rai featured a useful dicussion of the politics of Rai crossing over into American cinema, but that’s short-changed in the summary.

Update: Apparently, there’s a Time Asia profile of Rai, too.

Update 2: Found another morning coffee read that looks very cool. The Movie Blog identifies several blogs by independent film producers seeking exposure for their work: Everything is in Between and Selling “No Place” an Indie Feature Film.

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“The Schlemiel Sublime”

In a recent entry, Amardeep (note: I stole my title from him) describes his conflicted response to two of the more critically acclaimed films of the Oscar season, Sideways and Closer and speculates about where his “faint sense of disdain for these films is coming from.” I’m somewhat inclined to share his impatience with “the American art house obsession with chronicling squandered intelligence,” but the critical acclaim for these films, especially Sideways, has led me to question my initial ambivalent reaction to the film. I know that I identified with the Paul Giamatti character, Miles, but I’m not sure I’d recognized the full extent of that identification until I read A.O. Scott’s New York Times article calling Sidewaysthe most overrated film of the year.”

In Scott’s reading, Sideways appeals because Miles himself is a critic, constantly making judgements about the wines he consumes, with the film celebrating Miles’s ability to appreciate good wine. Scott adds that the film “both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman.” In my original reading of the film, I was also critical of this fantasy element and disappointed that both female chracters essentially disappear in the third act. I’m not quite sure where this observation takes me. Sideways is certainly a solid film, but the praise for the film seems a little out of proportion to me. And like Amardeep, I prefer Before Sunset.

Then again, for a much wittier take on A. O. Scott’s article, just go read the cinetrix.

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Documentary Films and the Oscars

I’m about to leave for a party, but I just wanted to point to an LA Weekly article I found on Green Cine Daily. The article, by Scott Foundas, criticizes the process by which the Academy nominates films for best documentary, explaining that Control Room and The Corporation will not receive well-deserved Oscar nominations for best documentary because they aired on TV within nine months of their initial release. This rule, designed to protect filmmakers, often prevents filmmakers from giving their films the widest possible audience (or from collecting the golden statue). I’m hoping to have more to say about this issue later, but it’s clear that the Academy needs to reconsider its rules for choosing nominees in this category. Scroll down to the end of the article for the short list of potential nominees.

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Happy New Year 2005

I’m still recovering from a quiet but enjoyable New Year’s celebration with some friends, but wanted to wish everyone a happy and peaceful 2005.

I’ve been so focused on the job market this year that I haven’t really thought about the transition into a new year. For this reason, I’m going to avoid mentioning my resolutions or plans, but looking back at what I was working on and thinking about last January has been productive (or at least it’s allowed me to justify not working today). I was just starting to think about how I’d teach Fight Club, a question that ended up generating an essay. My interest in documentary film was starting to deepen, and while I’ve only just started writing on documentary, I’m confident that I’ll be engaging with those issues for a long time.

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