Saturday, January 31, 2009

We All Loved Each Other So Much (The Dardos Award)

I’d like to thank The Flying Maciste Brothers over at The Destructible Man for conferring upon me the Premio Dardos Award. The Destructible Man is, in all likelihood, the definitive forum for discussions on stand-in film dummies and an awfully witty read to boot. For those of you who haven’t seen the Dardos whizzing across the net, its purpose is to recognize and appreciate blogging that has added some measure of value to the web and to improve blogger fraternity. How could I not support that?

The rules of the award include linking back to the blog that chose you and selecting five (or thereabouts) others to award. So, yes, it’s really just an internet meme thing, but at least it makes everybody feel a drop better about spending countless hours cultivating carpal tunnel for niche audiences (but, hey, to my thinking you guys are the only audience that matters!).

If there’s one thing I’ve come to sadly regret while scanning film blogs, it’s that reading every blog I’d like to read is just as impossible as watching every film I’d like to see. So while I skip here and there in my online reading habits, I’ve developed a relatively small number of must-read favorites that I can fit into my obsessive DVD schedule. Of those, I have to narrow it done much further to find only five to award and all I can say is that even if I didn’t Dardos you, I still appreciate your prose, analysis, opinions, recommendations, screenshots and even that banner art that you spent six hours perfecting and didn’t get any nice comments about; in short, everything you’ve done to make the blogosphere worth circumnavigating.

So here are the five blogs I’ve been indulging in most often in the past months. Some of them have already received the Dardos from others, but they can just consider themselves EXTRA special.

1) Cinebeats – Nobody blogs about the unsung masterpieces of the 1960’s and 70’s quite so well as Cinebeats, whose highly personal tour through the period of counterculture creativity is so insightful, informative and affectionate you’ll soon yearn for a time machine. I can’t deny that much of the appeal comes from my affinity with her taste, but it’s also the staggering depth (no end of cult and foreign titles too often swept under the mainstream), seemingly effortless writing style and much-beloved design sensibilities that distinguish her blog.

2) Kinoblog – My ultimate inside-man on the Eastern European film stock market, Kinoblog is more than just my lifeline to important news and information regarding Czech, Polish and Hungarian cinema, he’s also a darn fine historian and reviewer too. He brings a great deal of experience and knowledge to bear on topics rarely found elsewhere on the net (almost everything I know about Polish cinema I owe to him) and his word has become law for me when it comes to DVD recommendations. One of my personal goals in highlighting underappreciated Czech cinema is to write half as well as him.

3) Observations on Film Art – I was raised on David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s introductory film textbooks (and studied under one of Bordwell’s acolytes, Jeff Smith) and I’ve never stopped reading their books since. Their blog is, if anything, even more enlightening to read and contains a globetrotting treasure trove of well-researched and deeply analyzed ideas. Their lengthy posts on focused topics include illustrated examples and bibliographies, setting a high standard for blogging professionalism. Bordwell has done much more than influence my taste, he’s shaped my understanding of cinema as an art and inspired my whole approach to film writing.

4) Why Film, Exactly? – My friendship with the author may damage my impartiality, but Why Film, Exactly is already one of my favorite internet reads. Her friendly, efficient and immaculately written reviews accomplish a difficult goal I often fail at: reviewing films that <2% of her prospective readers will probably have seen and still writing compelling, entertaining and frequently Netflix-stimulating posts. Defining what I look for in a film blogger, she is open-minded and has a tendency to revel in, if not outright champion, those scrappy genre films of bygone years.

5) Film Forno – Director, editor and blogger Film Forno writes about what he loves, decorates it with images galore and weaves his own experiences into a blog that’s quick reading and great fun. His faithfully alternative taste never turns away any B-movie with something to offer and in return he hands out bits of backstory, context and trivia that renew my fascination with film. This is adoring cinephilia at its warmest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review of Grendel Grendel Grendel

A lot of people come up to me and ask, “Film Walrus, why aren’t there more 80’s-tastic Australian animated musical adaptations of 11th century Anglo-Saxon epic poems told from the villain’s point of view?” I usually get angry.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiments behind this question, but I have little sympathy for such people. They had their chance back in 1981 with the release of Alexander Stitt’s “Grendel Grendel Grendel” and they failed to patronize or appreciate it. I, at least, have the excuse of not having been born yet.

“Grendel Grendel Grendel” is based on James Gardner 1971 novel “Grendel,” which I have not read. As far as I can tell, however, the film stays surprisingly true to the book despite its literary, philosophical and darkly satirical nature. In the story Grendel is portrayed as a misunderstood monster of great curiosity and depth who demonstrates far more humanity than the warmongering, superstitious and largely ignorant tribesmen of King Hrothgar’s mead hall.

[Image: Fire snakes.]

In the film, Grendel wanders in a state of supreme loneliness, unable to communicate with his mother, the only creature able to love him (as eloquently described in an early music number), nor with man or beast. Yet Grendel understands the words and songs of mankind, providing him insight into the rise of civilization and religion amongst the savages who alternatively fear and worship him. Grendel himself has a certain spiritual streak, too, that plays out through wistful soliloquies directed towards the silent heavens.

[Image: Grendel, on the verge of gobbling up a pair of sculptors, confronts his self-image in a carved idol.]

After struggling vainly with profound questions on the nature of reality, the curse of determinism and the meaning of life, Grendel gradually gives in to his role as a monster, an eternal anti-man, and regularly terrorizes the mead hall. The callous Beowulf shows up only in the last ten minutes of the film to mortally wound our tragic hero, who dies alone under the moonlight while calling out pitiably to his mother.

Given that the story includes human heads getting ripped off, nudity and a weighty philosophical discourse that culminates in the fatal and fatalistic failure of free will, one wouldn’t imagine this film would be a surefire winner with the kiddies. Just the same, the Day-Glo “Yellow Submarine” colors and peppy “Schoolhouse Rock” songs add a degree of child-friendly merriment to the otherwise doom laden parable on the futility of life. The dry offhand humor and knowing irony will appeal to adults.

[Image: Grendel’s mother in a rare appearance bearing down on Hrothgar.]

The project was evidently low budget and the animation is definitely not at the level of Disney or Pixar productions, but “Grendel x3” has a certain charm to its style (exceeding, say, just about anything from Dreamworks). The Danish characters tend to be short and squat like dwarves, but with long pointy noses. Grendel looks something like a polka-dotted dragon runt. The general lumpiness of these character designs didn’t particularly appeal to me and took some time to get used to, but I give Stitt credit for originality.

[Image: King Hrothgar with two loyal stooges.]

The film makes up lost ground with its high-contrast, supersaturated colors and clever limited-animation techniques. The style is characterized by strong angular lines and broad swaths of bold and sometimes lightly-textured color. It reminds me of the type of naïve childlike art you might magnet to a refrigerator or wallpaper around a cradle and I somehow don’t mean that in a condescending way.

No doubt a cost-saving measure, the use of cave drawings and silhouettes images nevertheless enhances the aura of a more primal era where darkness and savagery ruled.

The voice-acting is a blast, and not just because of the wealth of accents. The brilliant Peter Ustinov (“Billy Bud”) takes care of Grendel, and endows him with the the all-important personality and sympathy he needs, both of which aren’t quite achieved in the visuals. Unferth, Hrothgar’s scheming second-in-command, delivers his lines in a deep bass tone that fits his gruff pride perfectly. The real show-stealer however is Beowulf, whose calmly aloof drawl exudes an ironic sophistication and self-assurance that contrasts smartly with Grendel’s tentative musings and feeble excuses.

[Image: Legendary Viking warrior Beowulf, ever the stickler for proper dining etiquette, advises avoidance of the political and religious topics at the tavern table (for digestion’s sake).]

The music in “Grendel Grendel Grendel” isn’t quite good enough to become a cult hit in its own right, but the lyrics are catchy and simple enough to be likable for children and funny enough to be enjoyed by adults. One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes.

Your unlikely to see “Grendel Grendel Grendel” at your local video vendors anytime soon (or ever), but I found it well worth the price I paid on Ebay (Stitt’s live-action “history of monsters” intro almost covered the cost alone). I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Art of Listmaking

I’m going to try to make this introduction quick, since I cover this ground quite often: movie lists have a bad name. It’s because of how tedious, uninspired and uncritical they can be at their worst. Done correctly, they can be illuminating, thought-provoking and productively contentious. But is satisfying listmaking merely just a matter of taste? I think there’s more to it.

I’ve oft mentioned my love of the list concept and my penchant for poring over even the most dubious compilations. A great deal of the best films I’ve seen found their way in front of me not by way of advertising, reading, classes or sage advise, but from various miscellaneous lists. Asking someone for their top-ten is often times my handy personality test, secret handshake and conversation starter all in one.

And yet at the same time I have to acknowledge that many lists are tepid duds, get disproportionate deference and don’t substitute for reviews or critical analysis. Many critics and fans can readily shoot of a long list of reasons to dismiss lists completely. As for me, I’d rather [over]analyze the process of putting together a satisfying list and discuss what distinguishes the good from the bad.

Let’s start by considering two types of lists: specific and generic.

Specific Lists:

The specific list is actually much easier to deal with due to its limited scope. Examples would include my Top 10 Food Movies or Top 12 Hobo Films. All you need is some criteria, could be a genre, a country or something more eccentric, and a willingness to research and watch until you’ve comfortably covered a reasonable spectrum of the qualifiers.

Specific lists have a lot of room for creativity and are more fertile soil for sprouting interest. Choosing an inspired topic can often times be more attention-grabbing than the actual films on the list.

There are also two subtly different approaches. One is to rank films by how well they fit the topic and the other is to simply ask which films technically qualify and then rank them by their perceived quality. A concrete example might be comedies: do you rank the films just by funniness alone or do you take into account how the film works overall, including the dramatic and emotional resonance?

Some advice specifically for specific lists:

1) For small lists like top 10s, choose an interesting and focused topic. For broader areas like genres, countries or decades, choose a higher number to overcome obviousness.

2) Whatever definition you choose for qualifying movies, push it to the brink. Take for example westerns. Western genre lists often bore by sticking only to iconic “classics,” occasionally loudly admitting a few big-name revisionist westerns (starring Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner) to fake variety. I’m often much more interested in hearing about fringe cases (which are also good for sparking debate) like non-Leone spaghetti westerns, “El Topo,” “Tears of the Black Tiger,” “The Terror of Tiny Town,” “Johnny Guitar” or “American Astronaut.” (Note: If you aren’t going to consider fringe cases, go ahead and tighten up your definition; maybe “Top 30 Classical Westerns” in this case).

3) The more specific your topic, the higher the percentage of coverage you should aim for. If you are going to make a list of sports-themed Hungarian musicals, I think you ought to have seen as close to all of them as possible. It might not be that much work.

Generic Lists:

Generic lists generally consider all of cinema and are inevitably more often the subject of skepticism, derision and controversy than specific lists. Many of these lists overlap significantly which, depending on your viewpoint, either unites into a consensus cinematic canon or runs together into repetitive dogma. Both sides of the coin are valid: while it is important not to be too slavish in our acceptance of the critical majority, these lists can be very useful for introducing new cinephiles and providing a cultural and artistic overview.

I’d like to list what I see as the most common strains of generic lists, how to distinguish them in the wild and how I feel about them.

Greatest Films – “Greatest” is possibly the biggest and boldest claim that can be made about films and yet it gets tossed around pretty lightly. “Greatest” lists draw lots of fire whether they recycle the same tired entries or pointedly leave them out. Only the gutsy should attempt these alone, since declaring yourself sole judge of greatness requires no small amount of solipsistic pretentiousness. These lists can be made more interesting by those who detail their methods, sound or otherwise, for establishing that illusive ideal of objectivity. Trying for humongous numbers also helps.

Most Important – The goal of “Most Important” lists is to delve into the innovations, cultural impact and historical role of films. These are slightly easier than “Greatest” lists, since it’s usually less contentious to measure the effect of a film than to assess its quality. They can also be pretty stale. Unless the writer adds unconventional choices (with arguments defending them), these are generally only useful for providing a timeline of cinematic developments, something which has already been extensively documented.

Favorite – One of the few types of list that dispenses with objectivity altogether and embraces the subjective nature of art. I often find “Favorite” lists to be the most honest and interesting, since they admit to revealing as much about the person and their worldview as they do about the quality of films. These lists also have the most variety of titles, with room for guilty pleasures, obscurities and movies that have eschewed consensus. I urge most listmakers to rely on this format as a basis. I consider “Desert Island” lists to be a somewhat confusing variation, since they imply films that you could watch endlessly; not necessarily true of my favorites.

Most Representative – This is a relatively rare type of generic list that might be described as the type of the catalog you’d put in a time capsule, SETI probe or class curriculum. The idea is to provide a list that contains the largest coverage over what cinema offers, usually trying to avoid unnecessary overlap. These lists span history, the world and all genres trying to leave nothing out, often including things that might not make it into traditional “Greatest” or “Most Important” lists like Bollywood musicals, Hong Kong martial arts films, slapstick comedies, essay films, documentaries, animations, etc. Guardian critic Derek Malcolm even included a porno in his 100.

Most Popular – These lists aggregate votes from a large group and apply some system to translate those votes into a ranked list. The goal is to get as many voters as possible, usually resulting in a very democratic result characterized by predictable mainstream films. “Most Popular” lists usually fail to introduce people to new movies and tend to confirm, rather than challenge, people’s artistic sensibilities. I think that most “Most Popular” lists of interest target a specific group, like a country, an online community or a profession, so that it provides insight into the local variations within widespread cultural trends.

Highest Grossing – One of the most objective types of general lists is a ranking of financial success. While it is usually a fairly concrete aspect to measure, there are still important nuances and pitfalls. Does one include rentals and home video sales, for instance? I also advise ignoring any “Highest Grossing” lists that don’t adjust for inflation and the best such lists also adjust for the changing relative cost of tickets (total number of ticket sales is a much more accurate measurement across eras). Yet no matter how you work the details, these list tend to be more flawed than even “Most Popular” ones, reflecting marketing campaigns, seasonal consumer shifts and here-then-gone zeitgeists more so than anyone’s idea of quality.

Creating a List:

Now I’d like to expand on what makes a worthwhile list. Relevant advice will appear in bullets.

First, you should choose a topic.

* Don’t make a list about something you don’t care about. A good list requires a great deal of immersion into the topic and reflects the passion of the compiler.

Then you need to choose an accurate title and write an introduction that reflects the restrictions, style and intent of the list. You should return and fine-tune it as your develop the list.

* Don’t fall into the trap of mixing and matching the rules. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve seen “Greatest” lists that include films like “Birth of a Nation” or “The Jazz Singer” clearly borrowed from “Most Important.” If you are taking into account historical context, please just say so.

* You don’t need a long and wordy title. If there are assumptions or specific rules that you wish to apply, simply state them in the introduction.

* Many lists assume that it goes without saying that they are considering only certain films that meet criteria like feature-length, fictional, live-action, English-language, American, sound-era, recent, theatrically distributed, etc. These do not go without saying. Your introduction should clarify any restrictions you are applying.

* Almost all lists nowadays come with boilerplate disclaimers. These tend to justify the creation of yet one more list, admit the inherit limitations of the format and then discuss the listmaker’s personal philosophy and biases. I’m so sick of reading the justification/limitations fine print that I usually just skip it, but leave it in if you feel the need (I apologize for the number of times I put my readers through it). By all mean, however, include some context about yourself, your tastes and your listmaking process.

Then comes the real heart and soul of a list: what made it in and what didn’t. I find it easiest to do an in/out pass first before actually ranking the titles. I usually feel that, with the exception of highly specific lists expecting few candidates, the inclusion/rejection of a film is much more important than the precise order. As a ravenous reader of lists, this has also made it easier for me to digest the abundance of varying opinions.

My advice in the section is a subjective take on the listmaking process.

* A list should satisfy the reader that the author has a reasonable knowledge of the topic. A general rule of thumb is that you should see at least twice as many contenders as the size of your final list.

* Do your homework. You should spend some time seeking out and watching new contenders after choosing the topic and before presenting the finished list. The last thing we need is more MSN-style lists where the writer has just pulled the first ten suitable movies that came to mind without studying the topic or filling in their viewing gaps.

* In general, I think it’s wise to include enough recognizable films to reassure readers about the titles they won’t recognize. If the reader hasn’t seen any film on the list, they won’t have any point of comparison to judge your taste and decide whether to seek out the remaining movies.

* On the flip side, I believe that a list should always have some obscure titles. One of the main reasons I read lists is to discover something new. I track many lists that interest me, but one of my personal rules is that I only keep around a list if it includes at least one film unique to my list collection.

* A list should challenge the reader with at least a few difficult, rare or arguable films. If there’s one thing I pass over faster than a list I wholly disagree with, it’s a list I completely agree with. Better that it stirs the reader to see a new film, rewatch an old one they’d dismissed, reconsider their opinion, argue for them more passionately or compose a counter-list.

* I always admire lists that strive for a certain level of variety within their restrictions. A common mistake of the green listmaker is to stick too closely to recent history and familiar culture. I have a lot more faith in the open-mindedness and thoroughness of a listmaker when they include films from before they were born and from places they’ve never lived. I impose pretty high standards of eclecticism on the lists I make and respect, but for most a solid handful of worldliness should do.

* Don’t make a list so long that it includes films you don’t even like.

* Don’t make a list so short that an average cinephile could guess every title off the top of their heads.

* An explanation/defense for your choices is often appreciated and can range from a sentence to a couple of pages. Why risk leaving readers scratching their heads or doubting your judgment when you have a chance to persuade them.

Once you have the basic placers chosen, you can begin the process of ranking them. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to apply an ordering and you should remain sensitive to whether it adds something to the list or not. Ranking lists can only increase the chance of someone disagreeing with you, but I often do it nonetheless.

* If you’re as fickle as I am, you’ll probably want to reorder, rebalance and tweak the list quite often, so I encourage everyone to use a spreadsheet utility like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc to facilitate moving the data around.

* You may have noticed that I said spreadsheet and not word processor. I like to keep around statistical data like the director, release date and country of origin for so that I can easily generate statistics. Spreadsheet programs make this extremely easy.

* You don’t have to number things in a strict 1,2,…,n way if you don’t want to. I often keep track of lists by tiers. This way the best-of-the-best are distinguished within the top tier and the borderline cases can all be found in the bottom tier. When I add a new movie and need to bump out an old one, it’s convenient to have only a small batch of bottom tier films to survey.

* Ranked lists are best used for distinguishing very similar films and worst for ordering very different works that don’t really compare directly.

* Learn to live with cycles (ex: A > B, B > C, C > A) that result from running many direct side-by-side comparisons. Taste often knows no logic.

Now I want everyone to go out and make a slew of amazing lists full of personality, originality and underappreciated masterpieces. Then send them to me for my amusement.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Two Nights with Crispin Glover

It’s been several months since my weekend with Crispin Glover at Webster University, in which he screened his two directorial features, delivered his Big Slide Show presentation, sold copies of his many avant-garde books and provided an extensive Q&A session. Somehow I thought that an extensive period of digestion would yield more insights into his work. This has not been the case. However, while I can’t claim to have been particularly entertained or enlightened by Glover’s work, I’m honestly thankful for one of the strangest and most provocative weekends of my life.

Glover is primarily known for his acting roles in films like “Back to the Future,” “River’s Edge” and “Charlie’s Angels” (which he did to bankroll his independent work), but considers his director stint to be his more important contribute to cinema. Popular culture can likely be forgiven this oversight, considering that Glover, quite wisely, refuses to sell the rights to his films, accept corporate funding, issue his work on DVD, put the film on the internet, release it in theaters chains or even allow it to screen without being in attendance.

Instead, Crispin Glover opts to use an alternative distribution system grounded in Third Cinema and grassroots campaigns. He visits cities one-by-one, not always large ones, and shows his films to relatively small audiences. He charges more than conventional movie tickets, but assures that the proceeds fund his work and preserve his artistic integrity. He insists upon a Q&A after each film to help discuss (not to explain) his work and, perhaps more importantly, his intentions. He engages well with the audience, many of which are offended and hostile or just confused and skeptical.

The evening-long presentations begin with his Big Slide Show, easily my favorite part of both nights. Glover, his face lit by a single spotlight on his face, impassionedly orates from memory six of his books while the pages are displayed on the screen behind him. It’s tough to describe how much of a visual experience this actual is until one understands that these are not books in the traditional sense.

Glover cannibalizes antique books from pawn shops and other sources, inking out, embellishing and reconfiguring the text into creepy, anarchic stories of obsession, madness and memory. Unsettling imagery, styled handwriting, beads of blackness and unexpected patches of empty space make the slides all the more compelling. My favorites were “Rat Catching” an overly enthusiastic guide/biography on the lost art form of the title and “Round My House,” a rather narrative venture concerning a self-styled inventor, his inhuman experiments and his rabid defense of a quasi-sympathetic doctor that testified against him.

I found Glover’s feature films less successful, though admittedly my criteria for a successful film is inadequate to address Glover’s goals. “What Is It?” (2005) could loosely be described as a mental crisis and psychological revolution within the mind of a lost boy with a snail obsession and Down syndrome. Actually, most of the cast has Down Syndrome. Some are porn stars. Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz, The Craft) voices the snail. Crispin Glover himself plays the cruel, controlling tyrant that reigns, on an elevated throne, inside the protagonist’s head.
The film takes place in two settings, the external world and the inner psyche. The outside world sequences are especially weak, as they slog along through low-fi backyard imagery and abrasive, jerky randomness. Heavy, ambiguous dialog and symbolism along with a cheeky “I don’t know what it means; what do you think it means?” tone wears quickly through the audience patience unless they can subsist purely on the “This is so crazy” vibe.

The other setting, the kingdom of the mind, is more my vein of surrealism. The above-ground portion is a fog-smothered, crater-pitted landscape prominently featuring the enrobed Glover on his monumental throne from which he listens to racist records and ponders odd artifacts. Around him circulates vaguely demonic elephant-headed nude women, actor and cerebral palsy victim Steven C. Stewart in a giant clam shell and cherubim imagery linking Shirley Temple, sadomasochism and Nazism. Below this is an inner sanctum with velvety Victorian furniture and concubines.

Though these portions of the film don’t make any more sense than the rest, they are more visually arresting and potentially meaningful. The somewhat crude shock tactics are everything that shock cinema should be in its purest form: multipronged attacks on even the most taboo of subjects presented without clear-cut messages that excuse or vindicate themselves. I’m not really a fan of most art like this that intends, presumably, to shock me out of complacency and confront me with repressed truths about humanity (or whatever). For one thing, they don’t have a tendency to work.

However, the Q&A session afterwards at least convinced me of Glover’s intelligence and wholehearted sincerity, which distinguishes him from the fray of mindless, heartless shock-mongers more interested in commercial exploitation. Yet one of the problems is that even with a well-meaning director and an out-of-the-way selective venue, much of the audience is not on Glover’s wavelength. Shock cinema is now virtually accepted as just another marketable genre of pop culture that preys pointlessly on the desire of many (including myself at times) to prove how independent/alternative/hardcore they are. I wonder how much of the audience really watches “What Is It” because they believe its controversial content can be a catalyst for positive social change and not just because of its reputation as outrageous lunacy?

Incidentally, my favorite part “What Is It?” was the ending credits, which are overlaid onto some sort of Romanian folk music go-go dancers.

Glover’s 2007 sequel (almost no actual relation) bears the witty title “It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE.” It was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart whose back-story eclipses the interest value of the film itself. Stewart spent most of his adult life in a facility for the mentally handicapped because his severe cerebral palsy prevented himself from making himself understood either verbally or on paper. After finally being recognized as a fully cognizant and reasoning person he acquired a special typewriter and composed a semi-autobiographical porno-thriller based primarily on his frustrated sexual fantasies. Crispin Glover brought it to the screen.

Stewart’s screenplay is considerably more coherent than Glover’s “What Is It?” to the point where it is actually far too transparent. Nothing in the story shows any evidence of inspiration, talent or deeper meaning, though for Glover it represents a profound point of interest for meta-topics on the nature of art, expression and sex. Thus the lion’s share of the film’s value comes from provoking questions like “Is it artistic, erotic, misogynistic or all of the above?”, “Is Stewart making an honest attempt to tell a story or just indulging fantasies and finding a means to star in sex scenes?” (Glover admits he suspected the latter), “Is Stewart exploiting the actresses; is Glover exploiting Stewart?”, “Who should have access to cinematic expression and are their limits on what can be expressed?”, “How do we register pleasure and discomfort when confronted with graphic, unsimulated sex, especially when it involves a person who doesn’t conform to societal expectation about health and beauty?” and so on.

Whether you think these are urgently important issues that need to be brought to the forefront of cultural discourse or whether you’d prefer to avoid “It Is Fine” like the plague and be left alone to discuss last nights episode of “Project Runway” will vary widely. Personally, I didn’t find the film to have much of merit though I respect Glover’s attempts to really explore difficult issues and personal convictions. I think there may be more hidden meaning underlying Glover’s work than, say, Brett Ratner’s, but the effectiveness of his films to convey its significance to the audience strikes me as equally dubious.

I’m also aware that attributing Glover’s two films some mystical meaningfulness that even I can’t divine might just be falling into the Critic’s Trap: assuming that just because the medicine tastes bad, it must be doing something healthy. Maybe “What Is It?” and “It Is Fine” are just the intellectual equivalent of placebos.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Iceberg Arena: Time-Traveling Czech Entertainment

Czech SF was featured in an Iceberg Arena comparison previously (“Ikarie XB-1” vs. “The End of August at the Hotel Ozone” vs. “Dinner for Adele”), but I can’t resist a rematch of sorts, this time with a specifically time-travel theme. Two of the directors return, Jindritch Polack (“Ikarie XB-1”) and Oldrich Lipsky (“Lemonade Joe,” “Dinner for Adele”) from the previous competition, and even the third auteur, Karl Zeman (“Baron Prasil”), is a Film Walrus alumni. Here are the contenders for this round:

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)
I Killed Einstein, Gentleman (1970)
Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)

The three films all involved travel back in time, though each focuses on very different destinations. They’re all pretty light-hearted affairs, if not outright comedies, quite different from the solemn, scientific, action-driven films that often mark the subgenre. I guess you could think of these as Czech precursors to “Back to the Future” or even “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures.”

Journey to the Beginning of Time

“Journey to the Beginning of Time” is an edutainment adventure about four boys who find themselves on a river flowing backwards through time towards creation. The scale is in the millions of years and the starting point is the second ice age, so most of the film deals with prehistoric life such as dinosaurs. Doc, the oldest and most scientifically rigorous of the crew, takes notes and gives lengthy speeches describing each epoch’s flora and fauna.

The setup would seem ripe for rousing action, but the general format stays pretty stiff: one of the boys, usually the youngest, will get separated from the group and the others will look for him, often ending with a quick dash to the boat with a carnivorous animal in pursuit. The chipper lads aren’t confused or even frightened by their journey (they frequently mention that “they can always find their way back”), demonstrating a gung-ho uniformity that makes them seem a bit like Boy Scout caricatures.

These faults with the plot and characters certainly won’t bother youngsters, clearly the intended audience of the film. And they’ll be absolutely fascinated by the stop-motion work and set design, the real heroes of “Journey.” As usual, Zeman pulls out every trick in his hat, using stop motion models, clay, puppets, monster suits, full-size props, forced perspective, mattes and painted backdrops to make immaculate replicas of bygone eras on a relatively small budget. His creatures look impressively real for 1955, a product of the crew’s diligent research and attention to detail, but what makes them really come to life is the way they move and sound.

Karl Zeman had been working in the industry for more then a decade, producing innovative shorts like the delicate glassmation “Inspiration” (1949), before making his debut feature film. “Journey to the Beginning of Time” established Zeman as a major stop-motion and effects giant, although it didn’t land on American shores until nine years later when William Cayton recut it. He added a framing device that makes the adventure a dream experienced by four American boys visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York City. This version makes very little sense (the boys apparently have no parents or guardians and inexplicably bring canned food and axes on the museum visit), but it seems to be the predominate edition available. I’d love to see the original (with subtitles rather than the goofy dub) and reassess it.

I Killed Einstein, Gentleman!

Oldrich Lipsky, up to his usual wacky antics, weaves one of his most ambitious and silly projects in this time-traveling farce. In the distant future terrorists have invented an advanced bomb that causes women to grow facial hair, precipitating a global crisis. The government rejects a high-tech shaving robot in favor of a more radical plan: going back in time to assassinate Albert Einstein during his 1911 visit to Prague and thus preventing modern physics from ever developing advanced bombs in the first place.

Giacometti (Svatopluk Benes), Robert and Gwen are assigned to the mission, along with an accidental fourth companion: a mischievous kitten. Robert meets his father, Gwen falls in love with the hapless target and Giacometti utterly botches the job during a madcap party where a chandelier is suppose to fall on Einstein’s head. They go back for a second try, but this time they are foiled by the future terrorists who use the cat as a spy and soon recruit the love-struck Gwen. It doesn’t take long before history has been altered, but the results aren’t quite what anyone expected.

Lipsky throws science and gender politics out the window and aims straight for the funnybone, ultimately creating a high-speed anarchic comedy that’s bizarre even by his own standards. While he’s not too highbrow to indulge in slapstick and striptease, the sheer creativity of his narrative gives a unique specificity to the broad laughs. The escalating chaos throughout the film eventually hits a critical point at which the rhythm and humor really clicks, and the resulting confusion helps mask the liberal dosage of nonsense on display. Still, Lipsky obeys enough of the time-travel precepts to pull out an amusing and rather extended ending that’s half predictable and half insane.

The performances are pretty good, especially Petr Cepek (“Valley of the Bees”) as the humble Einstein and Jana Brejchova as Gwen, who do an admirable job establishing chemistry (and ending physics) in their brief, frenzied romantic entanglement. Of particular interest is the 60’s-kitsch futuristic design (architecture, costumes and even the hairstyles don’t escape unscathed) and even the Edwardian scenes, with their ornate wood furniture and ostentatious dresses, are a pleasure to behold. None of this will change the fact that Lipsky’s work is a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but there’s certainly nothing else quite like it.

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

Though I like all three titles in today’s arena, there’s no question that the verbosely declarative “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea” is my favorite. The titular event serves as the origin point in a series of complicated loops back and forth through time that can be hard to keep up with but pretty easy to follow. The delightfully contrived plot introduces Jan Bures, whose identical twin brother Karel works as a pilot for a time-traveling tourism company.

Karel is something of a bad apple, negotiating with a group of aging-resistant neo-Nazis to deliver a modern atomic bomb to Hitler just as his defeat draws nigh. But the morning before his plot goes into action, Karel chokes to death on his breakfast (and Jan scalds himself with tea). The tongue-tied Jan semi-intentionally impersonates his roguish brother to save Karel’s fiancé, who Jan also loves, from a broken heart. The masquerade serves his own interests, too, but obliges him to pilot the nefarious villains along Karel’s scheduled WWII cruise. Once they hijack the history-hopper, Hitler hijinks ensue (say that three times fast).

Ironically, the Nazi bad guys include Film Walrus favorite Vladimir Mensik (“Cassandra Cat,” “Who Wants to Kill Jesse?” etc.) and Svatopluk Benes who had momentarily pondered killing a pre-political Hitler in “I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen,” made seven years earlier.

Jindrich Polack’s “Ikarie XB-1” (1963) proved he could handle hard SF with a professional aplomb that was still relatively rare in the genre, but “Tomorrow… Tea” is evidence that Polack was equally adept at creating imaginative comedies. Petr Kostka is wonderful in the dual role of Jan and Karel Bures, capturing the opposite personalities of the bumbling underdog and scheming scoundrel with equal relish. We rely on Kostka to provide a reference point in the shifting versions of past and future while also anchoring the love story, the screwball comedy, the hectic action and social satire (note that Karel, the opportunistic capitalist, is aligned with Nazism); not an easy role.

Writers Josef Nesvadbas and Milos Macourek also deserve a round of applause for tying such a convoluted narrative knot and then unraveling it into a conclusion that has the superb symmetry of a cat’s cradle. There are certainly more than a couple of plot holes left lingering about, but Polack makes it clear that the focus is on the character’s growth and not the story’s soundness.


Today’s batch has to be one of the funnest sets I’ve done, and I’m certain the three films would make an unbeatable triple feature for Czech and/or time-travel loving cinephiles. However, I suspect that even seeing an uncut and fully restored edition of “Journey to the Beginning of Time” wouldn’t give it the necessary push to beat the other two films. “I Killed Einstein” has some really golden moments, but it isn’t quite first-rate Lipsky and will probably leave some viewers scratching their heads at the Euro-humor. My pick for the winner, therefore, has to be returning-champion Jindrich Polack and his underrated SF diamond.

Winner: “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea”

Friday, January 9, 2009

Review of Death Laid an Egg

If there’s any giallo that could be considered weirder than “Footprints on the Moon” (1975), it would probably have to be Giulio Questi’s “Death Laid an Egg” (1967). The strangeness begins with the title, a surprisingly relevant pun considering that the plot concerns a twisted love triangle on a mechanized chicken farm. The story, dialogue, editing and music all sort of run off and do their own peculiar thing, creating an end product that lies somewhere between head-trip, thriller and social critique.

[Image: Anna and Gabrielle posing for an impromptu chicken modeling session.]

The great French actor Jean-Louis Trintingnant stars as Marco, who is unhappily married to Anna, the ambitious and unethical owner of a chicken farm undergoing rapid modernization. The two look after the young Gabrielle, a distant cousin of Anna and surreptitious mistress to Marco. There is also a mysterious fourth player, Mondaini, an advertising expert who is helping Marco design a new chicken-themed marketing campaign.

[Image: An example of Mondaini’s ad campaign which features chickens as central figures in society like politicians, soldiers and, as seen here, doctors.]

It takes some time before there is any sense of what the plot is going to be. Unlike the usual giallo structure, there is no unidentified killer knocking off beautiful women one by one. Well… except for Marco, who regularly meets and murders prostitutes at a motel, but I’m not counting those.

Instead, the story revolves around the bizarre relationships between Marco, Anna, Gabrielle and Mondaini, who are each plotting their own dastardly agendas. There is no shortage of amusing insinuations, clues and red herrings to occupy our time before each scheme falls into place, ultimately stitching a web of immorality that knits together the doomed quartet even as they are ripped asunder and deviled* by their machinations . As the deliciously salacious tagline says: “See them tear each other apart. Then see what they do with the pieces.”

At the black heart of the plot is a plan to frame a character for a murder he/she already intended to commit, exactly the type of fatal irony that the nihilistic tone demands. But the core of the story and its character dynamics are often less interesting than the peripheral details. These include,

1) A robotic grain distributer which becomes a diabolical killing machine,

[Image: Marco’s dog Blackie, moments before it is ground into slush by Anna’s titanic milling machine. There might have been some emotional punch behind this scene if Questi had introduced the dog more than a minute before they kill it, but it at least registers as stomach-churning.]

2) A psychotic poultry corporation willing to stop at nothing for more profit, and
[Image: An example of the tasteful (and tasty!) corporate art featured at Anna’s parent company.]

3) a scientist who creates hideous chicken freaks, born without heads or wings, to increase meat output.
[Image: Just when you think the film won’t get any more disturbing it introduces mutant chickens bred to be pulsating spheres of pure meat.]

There’s no question that Questi and co-writer Franco Arcalli were trying to get across a potent message about the direction consumer culture, the sexual revolution and corporate modernization was leading, but the way they contrive to combine them is almost too trippy to translate. Their dialog isn’t successful on a serious level. Arcalli strings together hard-boiled* quips that waver awkwardly between artsy psychological insights and hilarious nonsense, but never come close to real world conversations. Below is an example:

Anna: I was noticing Gabrielle today. We were down at the pool together.
Marco: Gabrielle! What does she have to do with anything?
Anna: Her body seems to be made of separate parts… beautifully united, but still each one perfected to be separated and put together again.
Marco: You make her sound like a toy you and can dissemble just for the fun of it. You might kill her in the process.
Anna: It wouldn’t be to destroy her, but to remake her… a different way every time.
Marco: That’s pretty abstract.
Anna: There’s nothing abstract about Gabrielle when you see her nude.

And so on. The best part is that Anna isn’t even planning to kill Gabrielle or anything. She actually really likes her!

Stranger still is the soundtrack, which consists of discordant experimental jazz compositions primarily featuring someone plucking on a Spanish guitar with very little sense of melody. While not pleasant to listen to in a conventional sense, it actually fits quite well with the prickly, unhinged atmosphere and staccato deliveries. It also matches the jerky, startling editing that really defines the film’s rhythm.

[Image: Marco and Gabrielle having a tense conversation in the empty white “room of truth.” Even if I provide context for that description, it still wouldn’t really explain it.]

It makes a certain sense that Arcalli also served as editor. He clearly knew exactly how he wanted to chop the film up, and what type imagery should accompany each scene. “Death Laid an Egg” is a rare slow film that makes use of fast editing, particularly a wide array of off-kilter, mood-manipulating montages.

Some of the montages move so quickly and with such packed imagery that they come closer to collages. An early example occurs when Marco is driving on the highway, flashing past billboards that may represent and foreshadow the oppressive corporate yoke (yolk?) that weighs down on him.

Most of the montages tend to be from Marco’s point of view, drawn from his surroundings and reflecting the way his dreams are falling apart, not to mention the scrambled*, disintegrating state of his mind. The art direction pitches in motifs of broken glass (thankfully no scenes of him staring into broken mirrors), broken eggs (inevitably) and all sorts of sharp or fragmented objects. This plays into Marco’s obsession with knives and razors, which might be seen as his reaction to the exasperating smoothness of his corporate cage with its ovoid eggs, chicken blobs and grinding cylinders.

[Image: Marco’s reserved motel room, where he escapes to when he gets a hankering for stabbing, also features some pointy, jagged artwork.]

The consensus amongst the relatively few critics who have watched “Death Laid an Egg” seems to be that the film is a difficult and frustrating beast that lashes out experimental tentacles in all directions and generally makes a mess of everything. Personally, I found the film to be deeply thought-provoking, shockingly creative and oddly cogent. It’s probably one of my favorite giallo, and I tentatively recommend it for giallo-surrealist fans.

Walrus Rating: 8.5
[Images: (Top) The early sunny-side-up* images of the chicken farm with the happy couple and free chickens and (Bottom) the darker pessimistic counterpart near the end of the film when the birds are caged and the couple… absent.]

* My apologies.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review of Blast of Silence

Back around Christmas, friend and fellow film blogger Exactly Why reviewed Robert Montgomery’s “Lady in the Lake” (1947) and reminded me how much I love those classic noirs with highly unclassical approaches. Specifically, “Lady in the Lake” is shot almost entirely from a first-person perspective with Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe appearing only at the bookends and in mirrors. The film, fittingly, is set at Christmas time.

So while I’m now a bit late, I’d like to riposte with a film noir holiday spotlight of my own: Allen Baron’s 1961 “Blast of Silence,” released last year on DVD by Criterion. Like “Lady in the Lake,” it’s a film noir set on Christmas with the director stepping in as the protagonist. It also features a rare perspective gimmick, but while “Lady in the Lake” is shot in first-person, “Blast of Silence” is told entirely in the second-person. Take, for example, the intro:

“Remembering, out of the black silence. You were born in pain. You were born with hate and anger built in. …Took a slap on the backside to blast out the scream and then you knew you were alive. …Later you learned to hold back the scream and let out the hate and anger another way.”

The second-person narration not only helps fill in for professional assassin Frankie Bono’s trademark taciturnity, but it forces us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of a methodical killer. The film may have influenced the silent-cool antiheroes of Jean-Pierre Melville’s later noirs (like “Le Samurai”), but while Melville’s reserve promoted existential alienation, Baron’s narration asks us to empathize with a monster on the brink of reform.

The use of repetition in the voice-over mimics the habits of the mind, helping us enter into the day-to-day operations of Bono’s job. “Watch it now!” and “Danger sign!” are probably the most common exclamations; giving us some hint of the subconscious mechanisms Bono uses to scan his environment for trouble. These interruptions play a key role in triggering tension moments before an action scene or a sigh of relief (“Your hands are sweating inside their gloves, but you know why…”) and also give the film a certain pleasurable cheesiness. Another oft-repeated opener, “Remembering…,” leads into revealing ruminations on Bono’s past as a pre-cynical orphan and the circumstances that led him to become a cold-blooded killer.

Allen Baron’s performance as the lead is necessarily restrained, as a certain level of blankness must to be sketched in by the viewer’s self-projection. One consequence, however, is that Larry Tucker’s Ralphie, an obese rat-breeding gun-dealer who aids and then blackmails Bono, steals every scene he’s in. His wheezy, unctuous delivery is in perfect contrast to Baron’s icy clipped speech and Tucker uses it to create a beautifully idiosyncratic characterization. Ralphie also helps to deglamourize the depiction of crime, giving a glimpse of the seedier side of Bono’s underworld just when he is most susceptible to the lure of domesticity.

“Blast of Silence” is also notable for its New York City location shooting. Baron strides confidently through the winter crowds, hands jammed firmly in his trenchcoat pockets, as he takes in the city and growls inwardly at the people around him. He thinks of himself as completely detached from the rabble, but is clearly an urban creature. The point is driven home in the film’s fatalistic conclusion, where Bono is isolated in a marshy ghost town outside the city proper.

“Blast of Silence” is a little rough around the edges, but the flaws give it immediacy not present in the smooth surfaces of Melville or the choreographed set pieces of modern action films. Like “Lady in the Lake,” the experimental perspective isn’t always successful either, but it gives the film a place a cinematic history it might not otherwise fully deserve. Despite these quibbles, the Criterion transfer now available makes “Blast of Silence” a must see for film noir aficionados.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Saturday, January 3, 2009

2008: Looking Back and Hanging My Head in Shame

Well, I’m running late on my 2008 year-end review as usual. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to discover that I’ve hardly been to the theater at all and just didn’t get around to most of the interesting new films that came out. There certainly were plenty, but it doesn’t seem close to the torrent of great cinema that came along in 2007.

I’ll be catching up with most of 2008 on DVD, but if I wait until I’ve seen them all it will be 2010. So rather than copping out completely I’ve put together ten films I really enjoyed from last year (alphabetic order) using the shamefully thin sliver of cinema that I did manage to watch.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Burn After Reading
The Dark Knight
From Inside
Iron Man
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler

It’s mostly American and big-budget, but I just haven’t had time to get to all the indie, arthouse and foreign stuff with my recent retro-tours of Czech cinema and off-brand gialli. The list does accurately reflect the solid presence of SF this year, despite some bad apples in the genre. Maybe I’ll do a proper top 10 of 2008 once I’ve actually seen enough to justify it.

And now for the more illuminating list; some of the films I didn’t get to yet and still intend to:

American Teen, Appaloosa, The Changling, Choke, A Christmas Tale, The Class, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Encounters at the End of the World, Frost/Nixon, Frozen River, Gomorrah, Happy Go Lucky, Hunger, JCVD, Jumper, Let the Right One In, Man on Wire, Milk, My Winnipeg, Rachel Getting Married, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, RocknRolla, Son of Rambow, Synecdoche New York, Taxi to the Dark Side, Valkyrie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Visitor, W., Waltz with Bashir, Where the Wild Things Are

Update, ~6 months later:
I've now got around to seeing Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, JCVD, Jumper, Let the Right One In, Man on Wire, Milk, My Winnipeg, Rachel Getting Married, Synecdoche New York, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Waltz with Bashir. Overall I feel much better about 2008 now that I've had a chance to catch up with it more. There are still many I'd like to see, but here is my revised list:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
From Inside
My Winnipeg
Slumdog Millionaire
Synecdoche New York
Waltz with Bashir
The Wrestler