Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review of Craig's Wife (1936)

“Craig’s Wife” (1936) is a little-known film by director Dorothy Arzner, an adaptation of a George Kelly play that had made its way to the screen before and would do so again. The film was a breakout role for Rosalind Russell, and featured two of the era’s greatest character actors: Thomas Mitchell and Jane Darwell. Sadly, without either a DVD release or television rotation it has drifted into obscurity. I pseudo-randomly rented it on a tattered VHS from a local library and almost returned it unwatched. Observing that it had only 75 imdb votes piqued my curiosity. The film walrus’s psychology towards film can be compared to the little child who wants to take home and nurse back to health every injured animal he comes across.

Craig’s Wife (played by Russell in the mold of Joan Crawford) is a cold tyrannical manipulator who has married for money and spends much of her time obsessively adjusting the twigs in her nest. Her sense of interior decoration is rather uninviting, and can broach neither flowers brought in friendship (the petals despoil the sterile tabletops) nor her husband’s cigarettes. Craig, who remains inexplicably madly in love with his wife, fails at first to notice that she chokes out every glimmer of happiness in his life and has gradually repelled all of his friends.

For someone who is so possessive and perfectionist about her property, Mrs. Craig’s home is surprisingly bustling. Two servants, a neighbor, a niece and a step-parent all tromp through the abode for the majority of the run-time (revealing its roots as a play), though gradually Mrs. Craig’s snarkiness poisons the party. Things go too far for even Mr. Craig when he learns that his wife tried to implicate him in a double homicide just to get him out of her hair. Arzner does a crafty job orchestrating a series of events through which Craig’s wife gets her secret wish and final retribution: utter abandonment. The film’s tearful conclusion is deliciously prepared, though vengeance gets served in several more courses than is strictly necessary.

Watching this so soon after “Swept Away” (1974) drew my attention to some odd similarities. Though this 1930’s film is far milder, there seemed to be a certain misogynistic streak that ran through it. Once again, the presence of a woman in the director’s chair compelled me to look deeper. Certainly a female director is under no obligation to spend her career resisting gender stereotypes and fighting for feminism, but Arzner was THE female director of the classical Hollywood era (there were virtually no rivals in terms of fame or financial success) and she has a reputation for lacing her films with feminist undertones. “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), for instance, is quite explicit in the way that it challenges the male gaze and directly indicts female objectification.

Craig’s wife is hardly a sympathetic character, but there are aspects of Russell’s performance that manage to evoke pity. We learn in her back-story that her faithful mother was left in the lurch by her father. She has been driven since then to achieve independence, even in the paradoxical act of marriage. The script notes that she pays her servants generously and, though she treats them abominably, this might show a tinge of conscience for those women who like her former self, lack financial means.

Mrs. Craig isolation really begins far before her literal abandonment, which itself is pushed to a dramatic extreme. She is psychologically withdrawn from the world, even her estranged family. Though Arzner could have portrayed her as a femme fatale who cheats on Mr. Craig, she plays out as a hard-bitten woman incapable of emotional or physical love. Much in her behavior looks like obsessive-compulsive disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, Craig may be hen-pecked, but life isn’t really so bad for him. He is away much of the time, talks cheerfully and appears to make friends easily. Seen today, he has his own share of flaws and occasionally comes off as entitled and petty.

Under the surface a slight tug-of-war wages between Mrs. Craig’s role as a witchy villain and as a nuanced protagonist. We are given enough latitude to understand her character, even as the script roundly condemns her. There are even implications that her failure to connect with others is not entirely her fault and that the marriage itself may have flaws, especially in the way that 1930’s conventions discouraged female ambition and kept couples in such separate spheres. Note that the film draws frequent attention to Mr. Craig’s love of travel and career compared to his wife’s fanatical nest building. In the throes of the Hays Code it is not surprising that Arzner would have to soft-peddle her explorations of such themes lest they “throw sympathy against marriage as an institution.”

As an overall film, “Craig’s Wife” is really quite classy and entertaining. The structural purity of Mrs. Craig’s downfall keeps it more pleasurable than preachy. Each character has a role to play; they perform it with grace and balance, finish it with an eloquent and appropriate speech and, one by one, exit the story. Thomas Mitchell’s cameo as a drunken friend is all too short, though his abrupt off-screen murder-suicide provides the films most sensational and implausible jolt. Jane Darwell is excellent as the only servant with the stamina to weather Hurricane Craig. Russell provides a powerful anchor, giving way to bouts of bitchiness in a convincing manner, but still implying other dimensions to her character.

Fans of well-written, subdued 1930’s dramas in the vein of “Dodsworth” or “Camille” (both also from 1936) will enjoy “Craig’s Wife.” It occasionally feels hampered by the inevitability of its trajectory and gagged in its revelations about married life, but the acting, staging and timing have the sharp honed edge of a well-practiced play.

Walrus Rating: 7.0

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ramble on Swept Away

A series of recent viewing has gotten me thinking about the subject of misogyny. When it comes to gender issues things always get complicated. One of my biggest complaints about the vast majority of erudite sexuality essays and gender theories (particularly with regard to film) is that they inevitably oversimplify when they attempt to make a grand statement or prove a definitive theory. Gender politics is always more complicated than it seems, even when you take into account that things are always more complicated than they seem. Starting from this premise, I’m not going to shoot for any climactic revelations, but I will certainly ramble for a bit as a lead-in to tomorrows review of “Craig’s Wife” (1936).

My renewed ruminations on gender issues started last week while I was watching the 1974 “Swept Away” (also known by its superior title, “Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August”). From the cheesecake cover art and contrived premise I was sort of expecting something along the lines of a sexier, less-heinous “Six Days and Seven Nights” (1998). For the first third of the film that was more or less what “Swept Away” attempted to deliver: A scruffy communist sailor and a snobby capitalist pleasure-cruiser pass a few weeks hating each other before they are stranded in a small boat and eventually shipwrecked on a deserted island. “I get where this is going,” I sez to myself. “They will fall in love.”

And they do. Except that the sailor starves, humiliates, beats and rapes the woman to get her into submission. She certainly complies rather quickly to his cruelty, becoming his obsessive love slave at the expense of her original personality and former freedom.

My initial reaction was the simple and obvious one. I dismissed the movie as an exploitive art-house attempt to legitimize male sex-power fantasies.

But what really bothered me was that the film was directed by a woman: Lina Wertmuller. Why would she create such a film? Clearly, I needed to dig a little deeper. Here is a list of thoughts that struck me:

1) My understanding and opinion of the film is affected by the gender of the director, though in general (as in conversation) I would try to deny that. If a man had made the film, I would not have bothered to re-evaluate it. That fact, in itself, shows that I’m still very much susceptible to oversimplifying things and jumping to conclusions. I should have given the film more contemplation regardless of the gender of the creators.

2) The film had a clear political metaphor that did not escape me during the initial viewing, but which also did not interest me particularly. The communist/capitalist, rich/poor, oppressor/slave, male/female dichotomies are all tied together rather explicitly. Yet I can’t help thinking that a film such as “Swept Away” has to be viewed at least 50% for its literal story and any symbolic value represented therein can not fully justify or excuse the rest.

3) It is certainly possible to view the film as a critique, a work that exposes the power structures and misogyny that it initially appears to reinforce. I’m always a little skeptical of these types of 180 degree analyses (though there are many valid examples), where the viewer has to arrive at the opposite conclusion of what the film actually depicts. “Swept Away” certainly doesn’t help the audience undergo this u-turn. The first half of the film tries (successfully) to make the woman quite intolerable, presumably preparing us to accept her later punishment as just. The plot reaches certain extremes, but we are not led to believe that anything is really meant to be satiric, surreal or self-aware. The tone of the conclusion is that their rescue, return to civilization and ultimate separation violates their deep love and “natural” male-dominant relationship.

4) A re-evaluation of the film did not make me enjoy the movie much more. It did make me appreciate how complicated the issues involved were and reminded me not to be so reactive, but I found it impossible to shake the basic thrust of my original reading of the film. Many elements of the film were quite well done. For instance, I enjoyed the scenic island locale, the verbal interplay, the lead performances and the conflicting emotions. The film is hardly an artistic failure, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXVI

Space is the Place – (John Coney) Returning to Earth in his jazz-powered spaceship, a pharaoh-decked Sun-Ra finds the black people unfairly oppressed and vows to teleport them to a planet with “better vibrations” (even against their own will). A Seventh Seal style tarot match with an evil pimp, The Overseer, ensues with cosmologic stakes. While attempting to be provocative and experimental, “Space is the Place” only succeeds at inspiring bemusement and wonderful blaxploitation cheesiness.
Artistry: * Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Spider Baby – (Jack Hill) In a dilapidated California mansion, the butler (Lon Chaney Jr.) of the late Mr. Merrye takes care of three young wards. Each is in different stages of Merrye Syndrome (guess where the name comes from) which combines juvenile behavior with violent spidery tendencies and occasional physical mutations. The low-budget fun goes up a notch when four clueless yuppies arrive. Surprisingly good acting raises the amusing material in this long-lost cult horror film.
Artistry: *** Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Stagefright – (Michele Soavi) In 1987 Michele Soavi almost single-handedly resurrected the Italian giallo. After apprenticing under Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, Soavi conceived this film about a serial killer on the loose at a stage production of a serial killer musical. Most effective is the mysterious villain who dons an enormous owl mask for the majority of the film and seems to be collecting corpses for a monstrous tableau of his own. Made vulnerable by an uninspired script with a fair share of plot holes, but ultimately rescued by its commitment and style.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: **

Stalker – (Andrei Tarkovsky) A writer and a scientist ask a guide with a crippled daughter to lead them into an evacuated government-restricted wilderness called “the Zone.” Years earlier an asteroid landed in the Zone and a military facility was built to investigate. At the very center lies “the Room,” a place where wishes are mysteriously granted. If the three travelers can survive the invisible traps surrounding the room and keep their true motivations a secret, they may have their dreams fulfilled… but maybe not. An elaborate and lugubrious mediation on faith with stunning, influential camerawork.
Artistry: **** Fun: * Strangeness: ****

Star Crash – (Luigi Cozzi) This heinously awful attempt to ride on the fame of Star Wars will be a blast for any trash-loving retrophilliac. It was made in the weeks immediately following the release of Star Wars and marketed to an intended audience of people who don’t check the exact titles on the marquees. Star Crash stars David Hasselhoff (of Baywatch "fame") and Carolina Munro in some oddly impractical outfits (I doubt bikinis are protected against the vacuum of space). Set in a galaxy so “far, far away” and alien that our own race can not hope to grasp its logic or dialogue.
Artistry: * Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Format War Ends: Blu-Ray Victorious

Early this morning, February 19th, 2007, Toshiba announced that it would discontinue making and marketing HD-DVD technology, thus officially ending what may be the last media format war in history. Church bells around the country ring out to celebrate the international digital media peace pact, but in the trenches and battlefields of the consumer market, many customers are left crippled or dying. For some, the news comes as a joy just to see the hostilities desist, regardless of the winner. For still others, the armistice has little meaning, signaling the end of a war almost as remote and vaguely-understood to the average person as the Persian Gulf Wars (there was more than one?).

Should you care? No. Well, yes… maybe a little. While the smoke clears and the corporate soldiers collect their spoils, I’d like to share some ruminations and remembrances.

The High-Definition Format War (HDFW) was notable less for its physical carnage, high body count and strategic maneuvering than for its devastating psychological effects on the hearts and minds of our nation. Die-hard enthusiasts led somewhat feeble armies against each other, emerging as heroes or martyrs in their own minds, but generally serving only to drive the civilian populace into the suburban hills, where they held out until the fighting had ceased. Most could hardly distinguish the red-coats from the blu-coats and didn’t care to get involved.

Blu-Ray was marginally technologically and tactically superior. HD-DVD had safer supply lines and more industrial backing, but suffered due to a recruitment and ally shortage. Blu-Ray had higher capacity per layer and faster bitrates for data transferring, but the cost per disc was slightly higher (on the order of about 10 cents) and the cost for switching over the manufacturing plants and menu/feature programmers added more. HD-DVD was smart enough to go region-free and was cheaper, but had no technological advantage.

It is thus somewhat surprising, though hardly sad, that Blu-Ray won out. Cheaper usually makes all the difference to the largely uncaring public. This is why there is a McDonald’s on every corner, but your Uncle’s burger joint went out of business. It’s why we were stuck squinting at Gameboys when the Lynx had backlighting, power-save, more colors and support for left-handed players (I’m still not over that one). Perhaps more relevantly, it’s why all we now have VHS’s gathering dust in our closet shelves when we could be having Betamaxes gathering moon-dust on our private space-yachts (OK, OK, it didn’t really set us back that much). The best news, though, is that Blu-Ray’s one major disadvantage is fleeting. The higher cost is largely transitional, and the second wave is expected to drop in price. (If we continue to get gouged it’s because Sony hates us, not because it is actually costing them a fortune.)

Every war does have its victims, but at least this time it wasn’t the children. Toshiba, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and countless consensual consumers can be counted amongst the causalities. Yet in the economic arena, war is often quite lucrative. Movie industry companies along the volatile HDFW border, like Netflix, Blockbuster and the studios HAD to choose sides (or at least bite the bullet and support both), but the civilian population was never drafted. For once the cowardly and the shell-shocked behaved exactly like the savvy and simply laid low. Meanwhile the arms race led to better arms, and we got all sorts of ancillary perks we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Forced to compete in a macabre fight to the death, technology continued to improve, new coatings increased durability and hardware costs dove. You just didn’t see that back in VHSnam where technological turnaround wasn’t fast or practical.

So if there is reason to care, I’d say there’s reason to celebrate. Proudly wave a flag, any flag, and don’t mind if a couple of jaded vets are still licking their wounds. Still… I’m guessing that the victory will be short-lived, that the fireworks will soon fizzle and that, a decade from now, the survivors will not bother to bore their grandchildren with war stories. The reason? Formats are becoming as irrelevant as swordsmen in a battle between satellites exchanging missiles.

Digital storage just means a pile of 1s and 0s. You can put those just about anywhere and exchange them rather quickly. They can skip just about every step that used to involve factories, warehouses, stores and computer drives. I suspect that before another format war can ravage the land, downloadable content will have pacified the proletariat and sent the warlords packing. Thumb-drives are already making HDFW capacity propaganda seem as silly as VD prevention videos in WWII. Sony should shower in gemstones why they can, because the decline of the format empire is just around the corner.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Review of The Last Days of Disco

I’ve been very happy with the sophisticated urban-indie comedies that came crawling out of the woodwork in the 90’s and have continued to sustain my picky sense of humor like a faint trickle from a faucet in the desert. One could argue that the media landscape is flooded with low-budget quirky comedies trying to be the next “Royal Tenenbaums” or “Napoleon Dynamite,” but to be honest, most of them are just not that inspired. The genuine Wes Andersons, Hal Hartleys and Noah Baumbachs, directors able to sustain unique voices in an era still picking up after Woody Allen, are a rare bunch indeed. One of the least prolific has been Whit Stillman.

“The Last Days of Disco” (1998) is typical of his talky style, although it ostensibly concerns a plot that includes a hip nightclub, hard drugs and a police sting. Though present, Stillman could probably care less about the clichés and hype that surrounds the era. You won’t be “magically transported to the cusp of the 1980’s,” but he uses the setting effectively for his trademark verbal showmanship and eye for character detail.

Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale star as Alice and Charlotte, two assistant editors with uncertain romantic and professional futures. The one aspiration that has materialized is getting into one of the hottest disco clubs in Manhattan where Des (Chris Eigeman) works and ad-man Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) takes his clients. They soon form a tight-knit kernel with attorney Tom and a few others, getting high on the few remaining vapors of the 70’s as disco disperses. The film mostly concerns their conversations and relationships, but the audience isn’t allowed to completely forget that events happen and the world changes.

The acting really shines, with Sevigny and Beckinsale making suitable opposites in some of their earliest roles. (Let me apologize to the world for praising Beckinsale a second time, I will try not to let it happen again.) Alice is a fairly straight-forward “nice girl” whose shyness and indecision provide the usual non-threatening obstacles before happiness. Charlotte is far more assertive and catty, but the type of person who will force you to be her best friend even as she is stabbing you in the back. Easily my favorite role has to be Chris Eigeman as Des, reprising his cynical misanthrope role from every Stillman film to date. At this point I think I’d be fine with Eigeman getting a speaking part in every movie for the next three years.

The writing isn’t quite as consistent in tone as Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990), but there’s more going on this time around. The overly-perfect cadence of the intellectual banter is still delightfully witty, surprising and quotable, but it sometimes hogs the spotlight entirely to itself and feels a touch out of place in a jam-packed disco. Should they even be able to hear each other without shouting? Didn’t some of the people in the 70’s use slang or imperfect diction? Oh well.

Whether he’s writing quick one-liners or extended diatribes, Stillman has a knack for making the comedic dialogue do its share of the character development. One of my favorite little slivers of weirdness is when Jimmy’s ad agency clients get kicked out of the club despite hiding inside of “Wizard of Oz” costumes. They ask Des when he needs to return the outfits. “Oh, those are mine. Just drop them off at my place some time.” I think it’s sad that Stillman’s writing hasn’t earned him the college-kid following that forms Quintin Tarantino or Kevin Smith’s cyberspace entourage. Overly cynical interpretations of childhood classics like the following “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) piece would seem to be prime pickings:

“There is something depressing about it and it's not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond cocker spaniel with absolutely nothing on the brain. She's great looking but, let's be honest, incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind, an oily jail bird out for a piece of tail or whatever he can get. He's a self confessed chicken thief; an all around sleaze ball. What's the function of a film of this kind? Essentially it's a primer about love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches that smooth talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls in sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks.”

There’s a good one on “Bambi,” too.

As for the music, the obvious expectations will be fulfilled. I’m actually kind of a fan of disco’s trashy indulgence. I see it as sort of the musical equivalent of B-movies. There is one track that sticks out like a sore thumb, and for added insult it gets encored during the credits, but otherwise the tracklist is a lot of fun.

Other than the music and the club interior, there isn’t much historical detail. The fashion seems directly out of the mid-90’s (when the film was made) rather than the coronation of the Reagan reign (not that I minded). I’m skeptical of how sincere Whit Stillman is when he adopts an elegiac tone, but I’m glad he has the good sense to be a touch sarcastic towards his nostalgia (the final “disco can never truly die” speech is priceless) and I love his little barbs at the 60’s counter-culture self-righteousness.

If your not into the style of humor or the habitually flawed characters, the film is likely to come off as yet another angsty gab-fest about conspicuously attractive twenty-somethings pairing off and impressing each other with their oh-so-pithy quips. In other incarnations the same setup could be poisoned hipster bait. I, however, tend to enjoy these oddly-matched marriages of genre outlines and deadpan comedy (see Hartley’s “Amateur” (1994) and “Fay Grim” (2006) for some other examples). One minor complaint I had concerned the ending: the film goes one shot too long, missing a beautiful opportunity to finish the film on the least likely characters.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Saturday, February 16, 2008

But Who Will Review the Reviewers?

I meant to do some sort of timely follow-up to my post about how I review, but never got around to it, for one reason or another. I had several ideas that never came to fruition. I thought I might do a historical overview of film criticism, but I’m a long way from having done the research required. I thought about doing a list of my favorite film critics and bloggers, but that also merited more time spent exploring the internet and sifting through sites. Today’s theme is a little more general and, hopefully, should make for better discussion.

I’ve come up with a set of spectrums to classify reviewers. None of them attempts to describe how “good” or “bad” the reviewer is, but they get at some deeper questions that I’d like to address. I hope that by asking yourself which positions on the spectrums you prefer, it might help you better understand what you look for in newspapers, magazines and blogs. I know my own tastes are pretty variable, but when it comes down to what I actually and consistently read, there are a lot of things in common. I’ve also tried to give some idea of where I think I stand (or would like to stand) on each spectrum.

I’m presenting the spectrums as a scale (I’d recommend a seven point scale) with a descriptive terms that describe the approaches at either end. I should start by mentioning that one side or the other is not objectively better, but I do have my own preferences. I tend to think the extremes are not usually optimal. As usual, expect some overlap.

1) Focus <-------> Coverage

A website or blog with focus has some particular premise around which to organize the reviews. These range from fan sites for actors and actresses to themed reviewers like giallo fever. Their advantage is usually an extreme knowledge within their field and plenty of dedication. The disadvantage is the narrow perspective and marginal utility for casual fans.

Coverage refers to reviewers who will write about just about anything. These people generally have broader tastes and a more eclectic variety of interests, but they can lack consistency and the type of obsessive immersion that makes focused writers so compelling. Most professional critics like Roger Ebert are high in coverage, though some have such strong biases in their scoring that, in practice, they are actually focused.

A distinction I would like to make is that coverage does not mean merely the quantity or percentage of films reviewed, but rather, the variety. I have favorites in both the focus and coverage camps, but I tend not to read amateur reviewers who cover every single film released (like the hard-working Reelviews) since I just don’t have the time. When I need that type of extreme coverage I rely on collaborative efforts like Metacritic, AllMovieGuide, IMDB, Greencine Daily, Indiewire and the Netflix community (I abhor Rotten Tomatoes because of the site design and dull, narrow-minded conformity) though I approach their ratings with skepticism since none of these sites cater specifically to my taste.

When I started this blog, I thought I was going to be a focused reviewer either in Asian cinema or Italian gialli. Of course, that’s not how thing played out. I could hardly keep my enthusiasm for all cinema boxed into a single distinct label. The only thread that still noticeably runs through my choices is my love for unusual cinema (cult films, B-movies, art house, etc.) by directors who think outside the box-office. I think I could do to be a little more prolific (I’m constantly beating myself up for not working harder), but I’m pretty content with the range of material I cover.

2) Casual <-------> Expert

This one is often linked to focus/coverage. I consider a casual reviewer to be a hobbyist with little or no film training who has viewed hundreds of films, but probably not thousands. A casual reviewer loves movies and sees them as a great source of entertainment, but generally has plenty of other hobbies and interests besides. They tend to lean towards big-named wide-release titles and have less interest in older films, foreign films and art films. The biggest advantage of casual reviewers is that they are very much in touch with the majority of the population and the predictive power of their ratings is often more effective than paid professionals.

I considered putting “professional” instead of “expert,” but opted against the idea, because being paid is hardly the key criteria on this spectrum. An expert reviewer is someone who tends to be more knowledgeable and obsessive. They often have an education in journalism or film production, analysis and theory, though this is also not necessary; an understanding of film on a technical and artistic level is more important. The advantage to experts is that they are often more rigorous in their reasoning and more open-minded to new approaches. They can often relate disparate films to each other and have a keener eye for originality and style. The disadvantage is that they can often be aloof, picky, jaded, esoteric, pretentious or egotistical.

I definitely prefer the expert reviewers and would qualify most of the writers I read as such (whether they are paid or not), though insightful newcomers often provide the freshest perspectives. Recently I’ve grown somewhat disenchanted with one of the great cinema experts, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but he may be the last of a dying breed in a culture increasingly saturated with non-professional experts. I personally strive to fall towards the expert side of the spectrum, but I consider myself in a constant evolution to improve my understanding and appreciation of film.

3. Harsh <-------> Accepting

This is basically a scale for how hard it is to please a reviewer. A harsh critic only places his stamp of approval on a very small fraction of films and tends to tear into perceived flaws. Meanwhile, an accepting reviewer will usually play up the best aspects of a film and will try to judge the movie by on its own ground. The harsh critic is perfect for people who only intend to see a few of the very best films available, but they are only useful when their opinions are nearly identical with your own. An accepting reviewer is useless as a sieve, but excellent for someone striving to broaden their horizons, even if it means spending more time and money and risking more duds.

Though many of the most famous critics like Vincent Canby and Jonathan Rosenbaum made their reputations on the strength of their discriminating taste and astronomically high standards, I dislike almost all harsh critics. Part of reason is that I hate to read people bashing films I really that I found worthwhile. I enjoy the vast majority of the films I see or I wouldn’t spend so much time watching, reading about and writing on them. Accepting reviewers are also generally more open-minded, a quality which I highly value.

Obviously, it’s important to have some standards and to distinguish between the great, the merely good and the waste of time. Someone like Harry Knowles gives so many positive reviews that he seems to be helping distributors rather than viewers. This is why you can see his name praising a conspicuous number of movies with “revenge of” prefixes and Roman numeral suffixes.

That said, I think viewers would get the most out of their experience (both intellectually and in terms of sheer pleasure) if they at least tried to appreciate everything they see. Still, some films are just terrible and I love a witty thrashing handed to a truly deserving failure. So do many readers, if the sales of Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks” are any evidence. I consider venting my rage at dreadful films to be healthy in small doses, but I usually write about them only when they serve as an example of something not to do or can trigger further discussion.

4. Entertainment <-------> Art

There are many ways to classify a reviewer’s tastes, but I think that this distinction is probably the most important. Is the reviewer more concerned with entertainment and the pleasure that can be derived from movies or are they primary interested in the artistic value and social relevance? You could map this pretty closely to Mainstream vs Independent, but its not a perfect fit. The pros and cons are strictly a matter of intended audience; cinephiles have very different reasons for watching films.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, either, but anyone who samples a reviewer can form a general idea of where they stand. My own opinion is that the American advertising complex has the entertainment side pretty much covered with trailers, promos, banner ads, magazine covers, posters, commercials, TV shows, tie-in, etc. and so I mostly read reviewers who explore and expose material on the less publicized art/indie side of things. I often rely on these reviewers to make me aware of films I would never have otherwise discovered.

This spectrum doesn’t really work well when I try to place myself. I really like the two edges, but I tend to be unenthusiastic about the center territory where generic dramas and unremarkable genre installments lurk.

5. Opinion <-------> Analysis

An opinion writer is someone who reviews a film based upon their overall reaction, taking into account their emotional response, their excitement and interest throughout the film and their general assessment of the quality by their personal criteria. Typically, story, acting and pacing are highly valued. The vast majority of professional reviewers and bloggers are bunched deep onto this side of the spectrum.

An analysis writer is often times a film theorist or academic who is more interested in the form, operation and technical qualities of the film. They may write reviews, which are by nature opinions, but they often emphasize elements like editing, cinematography, staging, set design, lighting and sound mixing that opinion writers might not notice or care about.

I prefer reviewers who are somewhere in the middle-to-right (analysis-leaning). One reason is that I find few people who match my opinions (and even then, I prefer my own), but almost all analysis can be interesting and illuminating. I also think that good analysis is a rare skill, whereas opinions are ubiquitous and do not require talent.

My original thought on writing this article was to focus solely on this issue, but ultimately it is just one factor amongst many. I had observed a significant distinction in reviewers: some felt that the most important thing to write about was what they brought to the film whereas others tried to focus on what the film brought to them. The first type of reviewers is an opinion writer who is ultimately judging the film on things like their attention span, worldview, moral sense and personal taste.

These are important aspect of a reviewer and help define their personality in a way that makes them dynamic and appealing to readers. However, it can be dangerous if these are the sole criteria used for judging a film. It creates millions of reviews that dismiss movies because they have sex or violence or that celebrate films because the reviewer thinks someone in the cast is hot or, most banal of all, whine that the film is “boring” without providing any real information about the content. It is no wonder that these reviews often end up being short-sighted and short-lived: as culture (fashion, politics, discourse) changes, so do the opinions that we bring to movies.

Yet the movies themselves never change. The composition of each shot, the movements of the camera through space and the aural and visual elements that went into the film are constant. It’s a fact that seems obvious, but is often overlooked or ignored.

I blame the late, great film critic Pauline Kael for lending mainstream legitimacy to the implicit idea that the reviewer is more important than the film. Kael was a brilliant writer and always an informed and engaging read, but in retrospect, I think she popularized the primacy of subjective responses and the reviewer’s personal agenda. She had an enormous influence on the professional critic establishment and I’m not always sure it was for the better (a very unpopular statement, I know). I would compare her to Freud, who was foundational in developing his field, but whose specific ideas were often in the wrong direction.

Alternatively, I hail David Bordwell as a much needed alternative. Many are familiar with him from his textbook “Film Art,” the most widely used introductory survey for film analysis. In his books and blog he has always sought to understand cinema as an art and even a science, a series of images and sounds that invite many interpretations, but which exist and interrelate in highly concrete and objective ways. He certainly has opinions, but he is astonishingly capable of understanding what shapes them and what elements of a film could cause other viewers to reach different conclusions.

6. Style <-------> Substance

Lastly, I’d like to address the issue of prose. A style reviewer is a writer in the sense of the novelist, whose word choice, sentence structure and references affect our enjoyment of reading the review. A substance reviewer is a writer in the sense of a reporter, who primarily presents the plot summary, the cast listing and so on. The advantage of style is in the enjoyment of the read, while the advantage of substance is in the need to be informative.

I believe that style is an important element of all writing. With film criticism, it can distinguish one writer from a sea of millions and make all the difference. Since I don’t consider the statistics about a movie to be all that important, I often keep the plot summaries short and I skip out mentioning the cast unless I think it might matter to readers. I try to provide trivia only when it is interesting and I leave IMDB to handle the exhaustive details.

Going Beyond:

These spectrums are not the only traits of film criticism, but hopefully they provide a broad approach that is of some use. Is there anything I missed that you feel is worth mention? Want to defend where you are on one of the spectrums or explain why you prefer one end to another? Let me know!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review of The Hourglass Sanatorium

An army of clockwork manikins re-enacts the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Villagers dressed as exotic birds twirl through a spontaneous arcane festival. Your childhood best-friend bars your access to his stamp collection of lies. Your father comes back from the dead to ask if there has been any mail. You are in the Hourglass Sanatorium; a place inside you mind and outside of time.

Nearly a decade after the Polish auteur directed his exquisite structural masterpiece, “The Saragossa Manuscript,” Wojciech Has was still uncompromisingly upturning every narrative convention he could find with “The Hourglass Sanatorium” (1973). I sought out the portentous-sounding title, despite the fact that none of his films, save “Saragossa Manuscript,” have grown in reputation enough to get Region 1 DVD releases. I urge everyone to do the same.

The story is as much about the protagonist, Josef, as it is about the time-traveling convalescence home where he is summoned upon news of his father’s death. The hospital is overgrown and decaying, almost as if it has already traveled to the ends of eternity and back. Most of the sets are symbolism-choked still life arrangements featuring cobwebs, skulls, debris, clocks, taxidermy and ancient leaflets. The architecture is vague, misleading and transitory.

When Josef arrives, he discovers that though Jakob (his father) has died relative to the timeline of the outside world, things are not so simple in the Hourglass Sanatorium. Staring out the window, he notices himself arriving earlier that day, but by a different means. He rushes to meet himself, but bumps into his mother, who addresses him at the age of eight. Not so much trapped in, as irresistibly bound to the paradoxical sanatorium, Josef is doomed (treated?) to a series of adventures that borrow unpredictably from his past, his fantasies and his nightmares.

Jan Nowicki, as Josef, gives it his wide-eyed delusional all, selling a character that seems infinitely more comfortable in the shifting landscape than the audience will ever get. It is, after all, an environment that mixes freely with his innermost mind. A lesser director might have made Josef’s psyche-made-flesh journey a mere study of parental relations and childhood trauma, but when Has flays open the human brain, he dissects more than a cheap Freudian thriller. There is no final-act key that unlocks Josef’s secrets for our own satisfaction. Instead, the ending twist creates a disturbing circularity that may lock Josef away forever.

Wojciech Has keeps his scattershot tale from becoming arbitrary chaos by binding it with Heart of Darkness atmosphere and reoccurring references that imply a personal history never truly glimpsed reliably. Most striking of all is Has’s seductive constructive editing, linking impossible locals with seamless, yet startlingly, transitions. The narrative operates as if it were Josef’s dream (as it very well may be), carrying us forward into new situations without leaving any memory of how we got there.

You know it’s a good thing when you can’t make up your mind whether the directing, the art design or the editing is the source of a film’s technical brilliance. I think it’s safe to say that for this one, all three contribute enormously. It is exhausting just to take in the film with the eyes, but where it really provides a workout is in the mind. Has has created a platform for viewers to try out dozens of theories and, no matter how crazy the conjecture, he never leaves us lacking for evidence.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

P.S. If anyone out there knows where I can find any Wojciech Has films other than “The Saragossa Manuscript” and this one, please let me know. He is fast becoming a favorite, but his work seems unjustly unavailable.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Soviet Sci-fi Showdown

The Cold War produced some of the best science-fiction ever made, delightfully wallowing in paranoia, technological innovation and wild speculation on how rival ideologies might lead to paradise or dystopia. There is so much room to wax analytic about the way culture and politics trickled into American science fiction cinema, but that’s not today’s focus. This Iceberg Arena comes from the other side of the iron curtain, and compares three cult classics of soviet sci-fi: “Aelita: Queen of Mars,” “Solaris” and “Kin-Dza-Dza.”

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

This silent sci-fi epic, often labeled the first feature-length treatment of space exploration, preceded Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) by three years, but remains relatively hidden by the latter film’s shadow. The movie follows Los, a scientist who builds a rocket and flies to Mars. Meanwhile, Aelita has already fallen in love with him via telescope voyeurism (pioneering the classic device of 80’s teen comedies) and the two conspire to lead a worker’s revolution on Mars. However, Aelita *cough*Lenin*cough* betrays her collaborators and makes a bid for dictatorship.

“Aelita” doesn’t particularly stand up modern science or contemporary cinema, but one can still squeeze plenty of entertainment value from the celluloid. The overt propaganda and earnest pseudo-science make the film funny enough to serve as B-movie kitsch. The constructivist sets are impractical art deco indulgences filled with swooping curves and oblique angles and only barely upstaged by the insanely inspired costumes (check out Aelita’s “crown” in the poster art above for the tiniest taste). The sweeping scope, high budget and imaginative vision even make the second half of the film passable as vintage adventure fodder.

The film was a popular success in its day. Director Yakov Protazanov enjoyed the type of mass appeal never really achieved by the more intellectually rigorous Eisenstein and Pudovkin, though history has since reversed their fame. Today, it has a nostalgia value that will endear it to fans of “Flash Gordon,” but it lacks the weight and nuance to stave off obsolescence.

Oh, and like all Soviet films, it is too slow and too long.

Solaris (1975)

Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Stanislaw Lem’s celebrated novel into one of his best known and highest regarded films. It features Kris Kelvin, a psychologists assigned to evaluate the situation on a space-station orbiting the liquid planet Solaris. He finds the spaceport to be in a state of growing disrepair, with the skeleton crew acting reclusive and evasive. Kris soon learns the reason when he wakes up next to his wife, a woman who committed suicide nearly a decade earlier. More than an apparition, the creature appears to be some misguided attempt by the planet to communicate with his mind. Kris struggles feebly to come to grips with a new reality for which humanity is utterly unprepared.

Tarkovsky’s film was one of the first to link the unfathomable mysteries of space with those in the human mind. His film slow-brews a cerebral concoction of emotional intimacy and identity with the frightening potentials of science and technology. The film is equally fascinating rather the viewer is trying to read Kris’s inscrutable face or attempting to unravel the mystery of Solaris’s abstract sentience. Few films before or since have so devastatingly tapped into our fear of the unknown.

However, like all Soviet films, it is too slow and too long (even compared to the other films in this Iceberg Arena). The extended prologue and the ending twist are both muddled meditations that stretch out intolerably. Fans of the director’s work should have very little problem, since his pacing is no slower than usual, but newcomers should consider themselves warned. In many ways, Soderbergh’s underrated remake is a more cohesive, balanced and digestible work. Personally, I prefer Tarkovsky’s other cult sci-fi film, “Stalker” (1975), but I chose not to include it in this contest because it would have made the competition unfair.

Kin-Dza-Dza (1986)

“Kin-Dza-Dza” is a cult film that mixes absurdist and satiric comedy with harsh-environment themed science-fiction. A construction foreman (Vladimir) is on his way to buy noodles for dinner when he is stopped by a college student (Gedevan) who is seeking help for a raving hobo. The tramp claims to be an interstellar traveler trying to use a small piece of junk to teleport to his homeworld. While condescendingly playing along, the two terrestrials find themselves transported to the desert wasteland planet of Pluk.

Playing like a Soviet “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (closer to the low-fi charm of the book, not the glossy movie), the film has fun jerking its fish-out-of-water protagonists through a series of weird adventures. Much of the humor comes from the oddly-conceived alien society found on Pluk: the indigenous race of mercenary telepaths has a ridiculously strict class structure and, fortunately for the humans, a currency based around matchsticks. They have about a dozen native words (including one for nose-bells), but their language mostly consists of “koo” which tends to serve all purposes.

The unique sense of oddball humor is probably more interesting for most viewers than the actual genre trappings and will make or break the experience. Director Georgi Daneliya borrows somewhat haphazardly from any sci-fi concept that crosses his mind and creates a messy, low-continuity plot that moves in unpredictable bursts, but manages to maintain a consistent voice and goofy appeal.

The film has never been released in the US and there are no plans to do so, perhaps because the film, like all Soviet films, it is too slow and too long. A very decent fansub can be found on Google video here.

Winner: Solaris

“Solaris,” along with its American equivalent, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” are cerebral exercises that exceed their literary antecedents, defying the maxim that “the book is always better.” “2001” makes a decent litmus test for whether you will like the Soviet classic and should give you a sense of its art-house tone.

Ponderous intellectual and emotional studies are, I reluctantly acknowledge, not for all tastes. If you tend to like your science-fiction distilled into unpretentious old-school adventures, go with “Aelita.” If you’re the type who’d have more fun mocking “Dune” than analyzing its literary and scientific qualities, than try out “Kin-Dza-Dza.”

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXV

Seconds – (John Frankenheimer) If you were given a second chance at life, would you take it? This is the question asked by Seconds, an eerie sci-fi thriller about the possibility of renewed youth… at any cost. The film was far ahead of its time (1966) in almost every way (though humorously kitsch in others) and deeply unsettling without being alienating or unwatchable. Reading the film as a metaphor for star Rock Hudson’s own double life adds an interesting extra dimension.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Shivers – (David Cronenberg) An early, low-budget Cronenberg film about a paradise hotel with a rodent problem. Except that rather than rodents, its actually parasitic life-forms that burrow into stomachs and turns their hosts into sex-crazed zombies.
Artistry: * Fun: **** Strangeness: **

Shock Corridor – (Samuel Fuller) Fuller’s 1963 thriller is easily one of the best and most influential of his off-kilter B-movies. Journalist Johnny Barratt determines to solve a murder case by pretending to go crazy and infiltrating the asylum where the crime took place. His sensationalized adventures include being swarmed by compulsive nymphomaniacs and interviewing a black KKK member who starts a riot. Barratt is determined to find the truth, even if he loses his mind in the process.
Artistry: *** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ***

Six-string Samurai – (Lance Mungia) Simply the best post-apocalyptic Elvis Presley samurai film ever made. In the desert wastelands of the post-WWIII future, a Buddy Holly-like drifter with a katana-guitar, an attitude and an above-average knowledge of martial arts heads towards Lost Vegas to claim the rank of “The King” in the wake of Elvis’s passing. A band of bowlers, some mutants and Death himself try to stop him. Enjoy the eccentric soundtrack by the Red Elvises and unexpected parallels to “The Wizard of Oz.”
Artistry: * Fun: ***** Strangeness: *****

Sonatine – (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) Murakawa is an aging yakuza killer double-crossed by his longtime boss. Forced into hiding with his small band of cronies, he enjoys a sweet and charming summer vacation at the beach. In Murakawa’s impassive expressions lies a hidden sorrow that the blissful period must soon come to an end, but the itch for vengeance can not be ignored. A bittersweet and poetic film that manages to alternate wildly from deadpan comedy to extreme violence.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***