Monday, June 21, 2021

In the Heights: Soft Soap

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights.

You know you’re in trouble at the opening of In the Heights, the new movie of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, which premiered in 2007 and moved to Broadway the following year. On an unidentified beach, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is entertaining four beautiful brown children with the story of his young adulthood in Washington Heights, where he ran a neighborhood bodega.  The kids have obviously been chosen for their adorableness quotient: they never stop smiling and their eyes twinkle. And the director, John M. Chu, lingers on every twinkle, as if he were shooting a video ad for a summer camp.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Off the Shelf: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kinuyo Tanaka in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

“A slave becoming a governor, that’s a true fairy tale!” – Sansho to Zushio in Sansho the Bailiff

Of the three filmmakers I think of as the supreme masters of Japanese cinema – Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa – Mizoguchi arrived and departed earliest. But even though he died of leukemia in 1956, at the age of 58, he had an amazing career that began in the silent era and produced 86 movies. (Nearly two-thirds of them have been lost.) Among his late pictures are several that may have been Japan’s first feminist movies: The Life of O-haru, Street of Shame and A Geisha, which deal candidly with traditional options for women at different points in Japanese society. But his signal qualities are his painterly style – no Japanese director has approached more closely, or more poignantly, the enchanted delicacy of Japanese prints – and his narrative sweep. The Mizoguchi movies I love best are like tales from The Arabian Nights: the erotic ghost story Ugetsu (1953), the dark Cinderella story The Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955) and especially Sansho the Bailiff (1954), which is his masterpiece.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Pretension Wreckers: Peter Stanfield's A Band with Built-In Hate, The Who from Pop Art to Punk

Published by Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press.
“The Who began as a spectacle. Then they became spectacular. They asked: what were the limits of rock and rock? Could the power of music actually change the way you think and feel? The singer-songwriter-listener relationship has only gown deeper after all these years.” – Eddie Vedder

“Can You See the Real Me?” Pete Townshend opined in one of his signature songs of simultaneous self-revelation and concealment. It was an ironic question directed at the whole pop culture he had come to embody almost single-handedly. Things had become pretty fancy in the heady and hyper-stylized world of pop music, and a lot more Serious than its rocking progenitors – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley – had probably ever intended. They had almost gotten out of hand and morphed it from pop into art, by way of The Beatles. Someone had to come along and return it to its raw roots, to shake up the pop party and storm the pretentious castle. But this being rock music, they had to do it in an even more bombastic and outrageously artful fashion than the very stylistic inflation whose seeming pretensions they were so avidly trying to wreck. Enter, stage far far left, The Who. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

New from Criterion: Masculine Féminin

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya in Masculine Féminin (1966).

Between 1960 and 1967 Jean-Luc Godard made fifteen features, all of them vibrant, provocative and almost impossibly innovative, many of them masterpieces. What filmmakers in the history of movies had streaks that were in any way comparable? I can think of only five: D.W. Griffith in the teens and early twenties, Buster Keaton in the twenties, Jean Renoir in the thirties, Satyajit Ray between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s (his lasted the longest) and Robert Altman between 1970 and 1975 (his was the most concentrated). Masculin Féminin, which Criterion has just released on Blu-Ray and DVD in an immaculately restored print, was the eleventh of these pictures; it came right after Pierrot le Fou (which is referenced in this movie) and before Made in U.S.A. It’s one of my favorite Godards but I realized as I sat down to watch the Blu-Ray that the last time I saw it was thirty years ago, on a drab videotape. Viewing it again with the black-and-white images returned to their original, tactile quality – showcasing Godard’s ability to make contemporary Paris look newly minted – is a revelation. He isn’t working here with his greatest cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; Willy Kurant’s lighting doesn’t knock your eye out the way Coutard’s does, but the movie still looks terrific.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oslo, Stage to Screen

Salim Dau and Jeff Wilbusch in Oslo..

Given the peculiarly insulated nature of theatre, despite its success on Broadway too few people are familiar with J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo, which dramatizes the story of the Oslo Peace Accords that came heartbreakingly close to bringing an end to the bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 1993. (The play won the 2017 Tony Award.) So the HBO film version – directed, like the play, by Bartlett Sher – affords the opportunity for many more lovers of serious theatre to access what is, I believe, the best American play since Bruce Norris’s 2012 Clybourne Park. Oslo does, however, pose several daunting challenges to a filmmaker, especially one who is making his debut behind the camera. One can, as Rogers does in the screenplay, eliminate some of the more obvious theatrical touches, like the direct address to the audience and the elusive narrative structure of the first act: it begins with the allegedly accidental revelation of a secret and then flashes back to establish the necessity for the secret as well as the need to expose it and make the exposure look like an accident. (This trickery is highly pleasurable in the theatre, but on screen it would be more likely to clutter up the storytelling. Rogers was smart to get rid of it.) On the other hand, you can’t just place the actors in realist settings and pretend they’re speaking in realist prose. The language tends to be oratorical, in the manner of much historical drama: the characters often talk at each other, making political points, tossing gauntlets at each other and escalating to grandiloquent eruptions. This isn’t intended as a criticism – the dialogue is elegant and forceful and often quite beautiful. Either a director has to go for broke, throwing strict realism to the winds, or figure out how to make the language work on the screen so it doesn’t sound like posturing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How to Throw Your Voice Visually: Becoming Photography

Chuck Samuels: Becoming Photography (Kerber Verlag, 2021).
 
“From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” – Michel Foucault

Much of what we now define as the poetics of images, the aesthetics of the camera, and the politics of photography comes to us from the thoughtful pens of cultural theorists such as the German critic Walter Benjamin, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the American polemicist Susan Sontag, and the British art historian John Berger. Their speculations on what makes photography not only an art form but a special and privileged form of modernist consciousness have paved the way for a deep appreciation of both the magic potential and the seductive powers of technological reproduction. Our ways of seeing and thinking about seeing have often been guided by their ruminations on what happens when we photograph something or someone, and their penetrating analysis of the photographic arts has inspired and influenced generations of image-makers. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

New on Criterion: History Is Made at Night

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur in History Is Made at Night (1937).

There are romantic comedies that veer into high comedy (like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner) and movies that blur the line between high comedy and melodrama (like Dinner at Eight). History Is Made at Night, out in a sparkling new Blu-Ray from Criterion (also available on a standard DVD), is a mélange of the three. It’s finally rather lunatic but very entertaining.