Thursday, April 8, 2021

Telling Stories: Tana Oshima’s Theater of Cruelty

Theater of Cruelty, by Tana Oshima.

“At first I thought my work was about desecration, but instead it became a more complex landscape of human relationships. I hope to put something of these feelings into the portraits that I made of the characters, which were all landscapes in themselves.” – Ralph Steadman

Both English artist William Hogarth in the 1750’s with his Harlot’s Progress and Gin Alley series of lithographs and Thomas Nast, the American cartoonist, in the 1850’s with his biting caricatures of politician Boss Tweed in The Atlantic Monthly were notable and notorious early exponents of using graphic art as a weapon of social commentary. Paradoxically, both of their stellar careers raise an initial question about the popular mode of utilizing incisive graphics to address pertinent issues in a mass marker mode. Why, though, we might ask, is Hogarth considered a great artist while Nast, though highly acclaimed for his depictions that eventually even defeated a corrupt political figure, is still considered a “cartoonist”? 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Neglected Gem: Heart of a Dog (2015)

One of Laurie Anderson's paintings of Lolabelle.

The avant-garde artist and composer Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog belongs in the special group of movies that defy categorization, like Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 Menilmontant, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 Le mystère Picasso (wherein Picasso creates paintings directly on the screen), and Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi short La jetée (which is made up almost entirely of still shots). The ones Anderson approaches more closely are Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (2001), essays written on film that shift, with the flickering fluidity of dreams, from one topic to another and that seem to redefine cinema as a variant of collage. (Anderson employs actual collage in some scenes, in the way Godard does in his 1960s movies.) Comparing Heart of a Dog to Chop Suey and especially to Sans Soleil is meant to be very high praise. Anderson’s film didn’t attract much attention when it was released in 2015, but Criterion put out a gorgeous disc of it and I’d say it’s indispensable viewing for anyone who cares to see what an artist with a breathtaking imagination and visual gifts can do with the art of film.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Tom Hanks Double Bill: News of the World and Greyhound

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World.

When movie lovers look for a studio-era comparison to Tom Hanks, the star who crops up most often is Jimmy Stewart: the folksy charm, the avuncular warmth. You certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone else being cast as Walt Disney (in Saving Mr. Banks, which didn’t do much for Hanks) or Fred Rogers (in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was worth watching for Hanks alone). But just as often I find myself thinking of Gregory Peck, though Peck was a terribly dull actor and Hanks is a superlative one. Audiences responded to what they perceived as a core of decency in Peck; in Barbara Kopple’s 1999 documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck, the educated, articulate Angelenos, most of whom had grown up with Peck’s movies, spoke to him from their seats as if they were questioning Atticus Finch. Hanks has the same quality, but he doesn’t shy away from interior conflict – Peck was hopelessly fake whenever he was called on to play darker notes – and he conveys decency dramatically. That’s what he does as Fred Rogers, and the intricacy and subtlety of his acting transcend the ridiculous script, which swallows up poor Matthew Rhys as the main character, a cynical journalist Rogers is called on to rescue.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Time Will Tell: Julian Barbour's The Janus Point

Julian Barbour is the author of The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time (Basic Books, 2020).

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. But if I wish to explain it to him who asks the question, I do not know.”
– Saint Augustine, ca. 399 CE.

I’ve always been fascinated with time and the concept of time’s passage. Who isn’t? All right, I’ll even admit to being obsessed with time, but not in any detrimental or depressing way, just as on ongoing subject of dreams, contemplation, speculation, wonderment, awe, and as perhaps the most ideal subject for so many kinds of art, music and poetry. It’s at the very beating aesthetic heart of what the French critic Gaston Bachelard called the dialectics of duration. As a kid, I recall being quite certain that time doesn’t really move forward at all, from past to present to future, but rather backwards, filling the present with potential energy and emptying itself out in the past as the expended kinetic energy of history. Every kid knows that time must work backwards until it stops, since otherwise we’d be trapped in an endless loop going nowhere. Most kids, however, tend to grow up, I suppose.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Two Women: Promising Young Woman and I’m Your Woman

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman begins as a black comedy-horror picture about the revenge that Cassie (Carey Mulligan) takes on young men who see a single woman drunk off her ass in a bar as an opportunity to get laid. It turns out that she’s motivated by the suicide of her best friend Nina, who was raped at a med-school party and couldn’t get justice because of the callousness of their social group, the indifference of the administration and the brutality of the rapist’s expensive lawyer. The movie, which was written and directed by Emerald Fennell, is so single-minded – wasn’t there one woman who viewed the video the rapist’s best pal circulated of Nina’s humiliation who didn’t find it hilarious? – that its opportunistic manipulation of the audience in the #MeToo era might have been infuriating. But it’s such a wretched, inept piece of rabble-rousing that what it mostly demonstrates is how little you have to exert yourself, apparently, to get a rise out of viewers. Thelma and Louise looks sophisticated by comparison.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Few Brief Thoughts on Some Interesting Short Films

James Baldwin in Terence Dixon’s Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970).

It’s been a year now since the pandemic officially began, and from the rate of vaccination it looks like it’ll be another year yet before it’s under control. Taiwan, from where I’m writing, wasn’t hit as hard, but we still had our moments, and in any case the fragmentation of time and attention span seems to be one of those things that are in the air (or the zeitgeist). For this reason, and others – I finally got my PhD in English – I saw vastly fewer films these 366 days than the last 365, despite being recently added to Rotten Tomatoes; and I saw more short films than I’ve seen in the previous years combined. The coronavirus death tally has also impressed upon me the fleetingness of life and the value of time, so I declined to finish films that didn’t engage me (“engage” is of course different from “entertain”). From the short films I did finish, here are those I think most noteworthy, in chronological order of premiere date, with one exception that I will explain below. If I don’t provide a YouTube link, I saw it on MUBI

Monday, March 15, 2021

The United States vs. Billie Holiday: Billie’s Blues

Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

What is it about Billie Holiday that brings out the twenty-four-carat fakery in dramatists? The 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues was a manufactured pop romance built around the various appeals of Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; luckily they were considerable, and Ross, in her dramatic debut, gave such an enchanting performance as Holiday that you could forgive the fatuous screenplay and the sometimes outrageous factual inaccuracies, like turning Holiday’s abusive last husband, the mobster Louis McKay (played by Williams), into a devoted champion who struggles manfully but in vain to keep her off heroin. Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill, set a few months before Holiday’s death in 1959, is a series of musical performances linked by melodramatic monologues. (The last time around Audra McDonald played it on Broadway, in 2014, in a display of scenery chewing that I wouldn’t have thought her capable of.) Now we’ve got the glum, self-serious The United States vs. Billie Holiday (available on Hulu) starring the singer Andra Day. The director is Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), but to put it kindly he’s not at his best because he’s chained to a screenplay by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that’s a real stinker.