Sunday, November 24, 2013

Frances Ha, cinematic movement, and the French New Wave

Last June, I had the good fortune to visit New York City for a week. The first night there, I saw Frances Ha at Lincoln Center. In comparison to my usual experience at the Regal Cineplex, the subterranean theater was austerely quiet and serene. We watched a trailer for Dirty Wars. Then, we watched Frances Ha. I was stunned. How could the rest of our visit compete with that? Since then, I've gotten the movie on Criterion Blu-Ray, and I'm still in awe of it.

Frances Ha musically alludes to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) and The 400 Blows (1959). The beginning of the movie, a rapid sequence of scenes establishing the close friendship of Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) resembles the clipped opening shots of the beginning friendship of Jules and Jim, and Frances makes a kick while mock-fighting with Sophie that directly alludes to the French New Wave classic. The black and white cinematography also evokes Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The wonder is that these references don't prove pretentious. Whereas Jules and Jim allow themselves to be bewitched by Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), writers Noah Baumbach and Gerwig stay away from ever allowing Frances to get entangled in a love affair with anyone. What matters in Frances Ha is the relationship between the two women, and Frances' oftentimes pitiful attempts to live up to what she perceives should be her standard of living in New York. She also tries to succeed as a dancer, but as she points out, "I don't really do it." Often as not, Frances finds herself humiliated due to her old age (28), her "undateable" status, her goofiness, her tendency to live inauthentically, and her lack of money when compared to her trust-funded friends. Frances Ha works in part because it remains so merciless in emphasizing how little Frances matters to others, how easily she gives in to peer pressure, and how transitory her moments of victory can be. For much of the movie, she flounders about, and yet her portrait is subtle, extraordinarily concise, and never sentimental.

In part, Frances Ha is a study in cinematic movement. Baumbach alludes to the sweeping shots of bicycle riders in Jules and Jim, the running scenes of The 400 Blows, and he adds on several key transitional moments such as when Frances joyfully dances and runs along a New York street to David Bowie's "Modern Love" (she runs in the symbolic wrong direction, to the left, in part perhaps because she's just moved in with two guys who patronize her relative poverty). During a key montage when Frances visits her parents for Christmas (in actuality, Gerwig's parents in Sacramento), the sequence is framed by a smooth moving shot of Frances going down an escalator at the airport to her parents (who wait down below with a poodle), and then another one of her ascending at the end of her stay. The montage does not provide the usual satirical commentary on the idiocy of parents. They seem perfectly nice, supportive, and Frances appears to have a good visit, but there's also a sense that she's just treading water. She's visited them before, and all of this family support does nothing to fix her failure to progress back in New York. The parallel escalator tracking shots convey the gliding futility of the young perpetually financially dependent on their wealthier parents.

Frances Ha ultimately meditates on two kinds of movement--the fruitful and the doomed, and the difficulty of determining the former. Only late in the movie does Frances understand that her artistic ability to choreograph dancers matters the most. Otherwise, she's condemned to move from place to place, relationship to relationship, without reason or purpose, with a yo-yoing hopelessness. On impulse, Frances decides to visit Paris for a weekend and pay for it with a new credit card. Perhaps not coincidentally, she borrows a Parisian apartment from a lawyer played by Josh Hamilton who starred as Grover in Baumbach's first film (another classic) Kicking and Screaming (1995). The latter film treats with a whimsical black humor the dead-end pursuits of several recent Vassar graduates who refuse to grow up (Frances also returns to Vassar in the course of Frances Ha). Throughout Kicking and Screaming, Grover does his best to deny that he misses his girlfriend who had the gall to go to Prague. In Frances Ha, Hamilton appears in one dinner party scene as a lawyer named Andy, but his character's largely unused apartment in Paris reminded me of Grover's longing for Gail (Catherine Kellner) in Prague and the American tendency to romanticize European capitals.

Suffice it to say that, to the ironic tune of Hot Chocolate's "Everyone's a Winner," Frances' weekend stay in Paris is solitary, jet-lagged, pointless, and beyond despairing. She walks along the brick edge of the Seine without quite jumping in as Catherine does in Jules and Jim. Towards the end of the sequence, Frances Ha finds herself sandwiched in a small old-fashioned apartment house elevator, her face framed by the closing door much like Jean-Pierre Leaud's face is framed by the cage of his imprisonment in The 400 Blows. Baumbach's vision of Paris (with its Arc de Triomphe evoking a scene in Godard's Breathless (1960)) remains somehow the best thing about Frances Ha. In spite of all of the delightful cinematic allusions surrounding her, Frances has to learn how to fashion her own culture and be her own artist. The French New Wave classics supply the spontaneity and the visual pleasure to balance Baumbach's and Gerwig's frequently bleak portrait of Frances. By the end of the film, Frances moves beyond them.   

Friday, November 22, 2013

film links

---Pharrell Williams' Happy

---an excerpt from Jason Bailey's Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece

---Bjork explains television

---The Look of Frances Ha

---Stabilized Zabruder JFK Assassination Footage

---"50 Years of Film Comment"

---"The kids are mostly horrible. Emma Watson's character is especially vile, pouting "I want to rob!" in one scene and then, when she's caught, excusing herself: "I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me." But the movie gives you no easy position of moral judgment, because it of course replicates the very glamour it criticizes, down to the list of luxury brands thanked in the credits. The movie's pleasures are the same as the teens': the supernatural ease of breaking into beautiful homes (it seems no harder than clicking on a link), the pleasure of the stolen glitter and silk, and the fact that they get away with it for so long despite their obvious stupidity. The LA night is soft with marine haze, and celebrity houses in the Hollywood Hills are lit up like transparent gems. Moreover, the real "Bling Ring" teens, fictionalized with different names in the movie, were in some cases let off with probation because (as I learned from the DVD extras) the case's LAPD detective served as a consultant on Coppola's film. Simply by watching this movie, you've helped pervert justice." --Eleanor Courtemanche

---Magnifying Mirror by Catherine Grant

---"an organized list of filmmaking links"

---Alexander Payne on Nebraska

---Slow Burn

---filmmaking tips from Spike Lee and Roger Deakins

---"I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche." --Susan Sontag

---"Otis Ferguson and the Way of the Camera" by David Bordwell

---a scene from Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

---a history of cloud computing

---Sutherland hopes that the young adult franchise sequel the he has a role in will foment revolt

---the spaces of Being John Malkovich

---"You see, film studios aren’t the biggest fans of things like Netflix, Redbox, or Hulu. You know, those things that allow you to pick and choose what you want to watch when you want to watch it for a reasonable, affordable price. The reason is that it eats into their sales of DVDs and pay-per-view rentals, for which they get a much higher cut of the profit. As DVD sales drop, movie studios panic." --Ashe Cantrell

---the arrogance of the Beatles

---"Directing a film is like being pecked to death by ducks" --Buck Henry

---trailers for Duel, Mob City, Noah, Some Velvet Morning, and Pablo

---Aningaaq

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Define worse": 7 notes on Thor: The Dark World and its villainous elves

1) In comparison to last year's witty, winning The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World has a perfunctory air as if the people at Marvel studios sulkily churned out what little they could under the commercial obligation of maintaining the Thor brand (I prefer Captain America). The result is hallucinatory but campy, leaving me wondering where I've seen such tropes like multiple realm convergences (Tomb Raider?) and villainous elves before. We get planets like Vanaheim, where the frost monsters dwell, and Svartalfheim where the abandoned husks of Dark Elf spaceships lie scattered about the barren plains under brooding shadows. At least the names are creative.

2) Many years ago, in the fairy tale beginnings of Asgard, Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed (a very pale Christopher Eccleston with blonde hair extensions) and his lieutenant Algrim vow revenge after the Asgardians place his beloved Aether under a stone column (as some Asgardian says, "Bury it deep"). The Aether is a powerful but a vague substance suitable for overthrowing the Nine Realms, a kind of red tendrilly CGI murk, good for any nefarious purpose or plot point.

3) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) still has his red cape, a bulky physique, and a cute little hammer. Just as vampire Edward loves his mortal Bella Swan, Thor has a weak spot for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who has an infinitesimally brief life expectancy in comparison to his mighty self who can live for 5000 years. Thus, Thor's love for Jane is roughly equivalent to a human falling in love with a comely mosquito.

4) Meanwhile, in the abandoned-warehouse outskirts of London, Jane falls asleep after a leaf-strewn portal sucks her to some indeterminate metaphysical place where it just so happens that the Aether penetrates her flesh and makes her glow reddishly. Did the Aether somehow know that she loves Thor? Soon, Jane finds that she has the otherworldly power of blowing up any guards who may otherwise impinge upon her space later when she visits Asgard. As an ordinary human, it helps to have something to make Jane stand out amongst the proud warrior Asgardians who only vaguely resemble Norse mythological figures.

5) As part of his Dark Elf skullduggery, Malekith stabs Algrim with a dagger and then sticks a red Aether lava rock in the wound. This procedure causes Algrim to writhe and turn into molten lava with super powers. Wearing a rhino/Minotaur/bull mask on his head for dramatic effect, Algrim then frees the enemy warriors from their dungeon in the depths of Asgard, thus wreaking havoc on King Odin (a perpetually bemused Anthony Hopkins with a gold eye patch) and his warrior God kingdom. It's always something.

6) As the shapeshifter trickster figure Loki, Tom Hiddleston easily dominates Thor: The Dark World because he's subversive and unpredictable in comparison to the monotone Thor and all of his bland Asgardian warrior clan stuck within the limited acting parameters of a Marvel-heroic amber. Somewhat like Iron Man in The Avengers, Loki gets all of the fun lines like "Trust my rage" and "Wanna have a rousing discussion about truth, honor, patriotism?" and "Define worse" and "Satisfaction is not in my nature." Hiddleston cheerfully holds one's attention even when he's just sulking and reading a book in his forcefield-bound dungeon cell.

7) Later in the movie, after the Nine Realms start to Converge (causing CGI circles of different planets, Svartalfheim included, to appear the sky over Greenwich, England, of all places), Thor and the evil elves duke it out underneath a gigantic blade-like elf spaceship (a Harrow) that can disappear when it feels like it. The warriors keep falling in and out of various portals, reappearing in other realms amidst Jotenheim frost monsters, etc. At one point, while still fighting, Thor and Malekith land upon the Gherkin building in London and make a squeaking sound as they slide down the side of the skyscraper, alarming the office workers inside. So does Thor: The Dark World slide out of one's brain as one walks out of the Regal cineplex.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

continuous partial attention links

---"Are you taking over
or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?" --Joe Strummer

---Kurt Cobain on Identity

---"'We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.'

'I've done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I'm used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.'

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes." --Greg Ray

---"Ernst Lubitsch's charming pre-Code transgressions" --Kim Morgan

---blooper reels for Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Silence of the Lambs

---The Eye of the Beholder

---"The nagging, omnipresent digital media have produced a version of the Attention Deficit Disorder that psychologists began identifying in children decades ago: Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). A former Apple employee, Linda Stone, coined the term in 1998, differentiating it from multitasking, or the pairing of a 'fairly automatic' activity, such as eating lunch, with one requiring concentration, such as making a phone call. CPA results from 'a desire not to miss anything,' to be plugged into sources keeping us 'in the know' and, artificially, at high alert. Between smartphone, laptop, e-reader, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube, says novelist Walter Kirn, we’re like the 'stiff-backed lady operators' in old movies, 'rapidly swapping phone jacks from hole to hole as they connect Chicago to Miami, reporter to city desk, businessman to mistress.'" --Thomas L. Jeffers

---the titles of animated films and video games

---Selfies at Funerals

---Robert Grieves Showreel

---John Sayles--12 films that influenced his career

---"For me there’s no question that cinematically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is the best Bond film and the only one worth watching repeatedly for reasons other than pure entertainment (certainly it’s the only Bond film I look at and think: I’m stealing that shit). Shot to shot, this movie is beautiful in a way none of the other Bond films are—the anamorphic compositions are relentlessly arresting—and the editing patterns of the action sequences are totally bananas; it’s like Peter Hunt (who cut the first five Bond films) took all the ideas of the French new wave and blended them with Eisenstein in a Cuisinart to create a grammar that still tops today’show fast can you cut aesthetic, because the difference here is that each of the shots—no matter how short—are real shots, not just additional coverage from the hosing-it-down school of action, so there is a unification of the aesthetic of the first unit and the second unit that doesn’t exist in any other Bond film. And, speaking of action, there are as many big set pieces in OHMSS as any Bond film ever made, and if that weren’t enough, there’s a great score by John Barry, some really striking sound work, and what can you say about Diana Rigg that doesn’t start with the word WOW?" --Steven Soderbergh

---trailers for Years of Living Dangerously, Only Lovers Left Alive, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Immigrant, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Robocop

---David Thomson's Moments that Made the Movies

---Richard Linklater on cinema and time

---How Calvin and Hobbes Inspired a Generation

---"There is a kind of audacity in something like Lincoln, in which important white men get discursive about the moral quandary in which slavery mires the country. That debate required men to search their souls and vote accordingly. But after enough of these movies, you're just hot with insult. You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.

McQueen and Ridley turn that dynamic inside out. Their movie presents the privilege of whiteness, the systematic abuse of its powers, and black people's struggles to get out from beneath it. A different movie might have taken this story and turned it into a battle between Epps and the white men who feel a duty to free Northrup. That's what we're used to. There have been complaints that the movie is too violent, that it depicts too many lashings, too many cruelties, too much interracial abuse, that all the gashes on all the backs (what Toni Morrison poetically described as chokecherry trees) are just too much. But that's a privileged concern." --Wesley Morris

---Three Reasons: The Crowd

---The Walking Dead: A Decade of Dead

---how an SNL parody trailer gets made

---"Slippery People" live

---The Federal System of Biometric Identification

---"Notes on the Mirror Visions of Modesty Blaise" --Catherine Grant

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Don't talk to me about Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch

Don't talk to me about Donna Tartt. She holds up a mirror to all of my tweets, my link lists, my retweets, all of the times I have checked my stats and my twitter interactions (especially when others favorite my retweets), the many times I have, in my boredom, looked for some answering response to the copy of a copy of a gesture of an allusion of a website hastily glanced at. Her work casts a baleful light on the narrowness of all of this Internet activity, all of this accumulated chatter, acres and acres of sloppy hastily written and eminently forgettable verbiage, whole landmasses of debased attention-seeking words always obliging the poor blogger to write another post or list some more links or the skimming reader will move on. No, I am not bitter.

What does Donna Tartt propose instead? Two passages of her new novel The Goldfinch stand out. I especially enjoyed this nihilistic blast:

"But depression wasn't the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn't he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom" (476-77).

In contrast to all of this flood of distraction and continuous partial attention, Donna Tartt exemplifies detachment and craft. Out of her aesthetics that holds much of what is valuable of the nineteenth century literary tradition, Tartt demonstrates how not to tweet, not be beholden to a machine, since she (reportedly) handwrites drafts in a notebook, cultivates "language for texture," and takes her time (11 years or so) between novels. Instead of "'Epoxy-glued' . . . shoddy work, and cheap things generally" (418), Tartt celebrates the discipline and pleasure of restoring antique furniture:

"By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn't actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate pace tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies, there was no television; he read old novels with marbled end papers; he didn't own a cell phone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM, was the size of a suitcase and useless. In blameless quiet, he buried himself in his work, steam-bending veneers or hand-threading table legs with a chisel, and his happy absorption floated up from the workshop and diffused through the house with the warmth of a wood-burning stove in winter" (395).

By building a novel around a young man's relationship with a painting, Fabritius' The Goldfinch, Tartt meditates upon our relationship with Art, but nevermind. Don't talk to me about that. I have a link list to compile.