Sunday, October 29, 2006

Martin (1977, George A. Romero)- for Nathaniel R's Vampire Blog-a-thon

By way of introduction: Welcome all, Silly Hats Only regulars and newcomers alike. If you've never visited before, hope you enjoy the piece and the blog as a whole. If you like what you see, be sure to stop by my main site as well, which contains my top 100ish list of all time, yearly lists, a screening log, and the like.

A warning: if you haven't seen MARTIN (and you really ought to) there will be SPOILERS contained in this essay, as there should be for any essay that discusses a film in depth. So if you want to come to the film with fresh eyes, you can always come back later. I won't take it down or anything. And besides, with Halloween coming up, it's the perfect time to rent it. I haven't seen SAW III, THE GRUDGE 2, or TEXAS LAMESAW: THE PREQUEL, but I can pretty much guarantee MARTIN is better. Any reasonably good video store should carry it. If yours doesn't, find a new one.

Here's a link to the Film Experience blog, run by Nathaniel R, who coordinated this blog-a-thon. I'll be posting links to some of my favorite entries in the series as they become available.

Thanks for reading this far. Enjoy, and please find it in your heart to forgive the occasional grammatical error.

Most vampire movies dress themselves up in the trappings of the past. Think about the various incarnations of Dracula- exotic, cultivated, gliding around his decaying castle and dressed to the nines. For all the horror inherent in vampirism, there’s something comforting about setting the legends in the past. The past, after all, was a time of magic and superstition, and there’s no place in the present for that sort of nonsense, right?

George A. Romero’s MARTIN would beg to differ with you. Here for a change is a vampire movie that remains resolutely contemporary, starting with the film’s protagonist. Martin (John Amplas) isn’t a cape-wearing Dracula clone, but a shy, awkward “young” man who works as a delivery boy. Whereas Dracula could never be mistaken for anyone else, Martin appears completely ordinary; as well he must, in order to survive in the world. Most obviously, Martin lacks fangs. One might think fangs would be a prerequisite for vampirism, but that becomes more a less a question of semantics once he starts drinking human blood directly from the source.

As with all of Romero’s best work, MARTIN is set in Western Pennsylvania. Braddock, like many industrial communities during the seventies, has fall upon hard times. Many of the citizens of working age are unemployed or work low-paying jobs, and much of the population is elderly. And so Martin moves here, into the home of his relative, Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), who promises Martin not long after meeting him at the train station, “first, I will save your soul; then I will destroy you.”

One aspect of MARTIN that intrigued me was the ambiguity over Martin’s problem. Yes, he craves the blood of human beings. But is he really a vampire? It’s hard to say. As he exclaims a number of times, “it’s a sickness!” Because he doesn’t have fangs, when he attacks he must drug his victims and slice open their veins with a razor blade. Also, he is able to see his reflection in mirrors, and as he tells the host of an all-night radio show, he doesn’t respond to various traditional vampire deterrents- garlic, crosses, and the like. Sunlight affects him to a point, but only to the extent that he must wear sunglasses during the daytime. But if he isn’t a vampire, why does he act like one? Martin has no doubt heard talk all his life about “the family shame,” which Cuda talks about incessantly- perhaps being surrounded by this level of superstition in his own family has convinced him that he has been cursed as well.

And what do we make of the black and white scenes that Romero employs at various key moments in the film? In these scenes we see Martin, presumably in his former life in the old world, living the elegant life we usually associate with movie vampires. But the film never makes it clear whether these are his memories, or merely fantasies of his. In Romero’s best-known films, the LIVING DEAD tetralogy, whether the villains are zombies is never in doubt. But in MARTIN, vampirism isn’t a given but a matter of faith.

Romero made MARTIN a little more than a decade following Vatican II, which began a modernizing period for the Roman Catholic Church. Braddock, as seen in the film, is predominantly a Catholic community, and nearly all of the film’s significant characters are seen going to Mass. But there is a gulf between the faith of the older characters such as Cuda and the younger ones. When Cuda invites a newly-arrived priest to his home for dinner and begins to tell him about Martin’s affliction, the priest reacts with skepticism. He’s happy to perform the old-style Latin Mass to please the parishioners, but vampires and exorcisms are out of his domain. Cuda can’t believe his ears. In his eyes, doubt and cynicism make it easier for vampires to prey on people, and “if our priests cannot save us from demons, who can?”

Another area in which Martin is unlike his fellow onscreen vampires is his sexual anxiety. Most vampire movies contain an element of eroticism, with the vampire doubling as an expert seducer in order to capture his prey. But Martin admits on the radio show that, “I’ve been much too shy to ever do the sexy stuff with someone who’s awake.” Martin may claim to be 84 years old (“young for a nosferatu,” says Cuda) but sexually he’s still a confused kid. Even when a local housewife seems to be interested in him for sex, she ends up having to take matters into her own hands.

“In real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do,” bemoans Martin late in the film, and this is doubly true of his victims. While we see him in the black-and-white sequences being playfully invited into the bedroom of a nubile young lady, it’s hardly that simple for Martin in the film’s present-day world. In the film’s centerpiece sequence, Martin breaks into a middle-aged married woman’s home at night and unexpectedly finds her with a man who isn’t her husband. Thinking quickly, he drugs both the woman and her lover, and improvises a new plan of attack. In a delicious bit of irony, the woman’s indiscretion ends up saving her life, as Martin takes out his frustration on her lover instead, taking his blood while yelling, “You weren’t supposed to be there!”

MARTIN is a well-made film, but to his credit, Romero doesn’t give it the polish of a traditional vampire movie. Along with his avoidance of stereotypical set direction and costumes, the cinematography is grainier and more hardscrabble than one might expect from a movie of this sort. There’s a great deal of handheld camera work, and little of the extreme chiaroscuro that tends to distinguish this genre that’s often heavily influenced by German Expressionism. The one exception to this comes in a scene where Martin dons a cape and a set of plastic fangs to frighten Cuda. In this scene, Romero employs fog and some extreme camera angles to contrast with his less stylized work in the rest of the film. When Martin pops his fangs out of his mouth at scene’s end and tells Cuda, “it’s just a costume,” the film makes its central theme explicit. Normally, I would have resented such an on-the-nose statement, but Romero’s assured filmmaking and storytelling sell the moment perfectly, turning it into an effective and strangely comic scene.

While I’ve always enjoyed spending a few hours in the cinematic presences of Dracula, Count Orlok, and friends, to me there’s something that’s much more unsettling about MARTIN. Rather than comfortably placing its vampire in the past, Martin takes place more or less in the present day, in a setting like many in America. Martin must learn to live by the unwritten rules of modern life in order to survive, and strangely the rules are much the same for him as they are for everyone else- mind your own business, keep your head down, fit in with the crowd, et cetera. And Martin’s tortured relationship with Cuda hits home even now, when the rift between the devout and the skeptical is stronger than ever. Of course, it’s doubtful that most faith-based conflicts on the basis of faith would end with a stake being driven through the protagonist’s heart, but despite all its new wrinkles, MARTIN is still a vampire movie at heart. There are some genre tropes that you just can’t get around.

Special thanks to Nathaniel for allowing me to take part. You can check out his blog for links to all the other participants, but here are some of the more interesting ones:

Certifiably Creative
No More Marriages
Eddie on Film
Forward to Yesterday
Modern Fabulosity
When I Look Deep Into Your Eyes...
Pfangirl Through the Looking Glass
Way of Words
My New Plaid Pants
Nick's Flick Picks
Culture Snob
100 Films
Film of the Year
Critic After Dark
Auteur Lust

And I would be remiss if I didn't give shout-outs to Richard Gibson, Tuwa's Shanty, and Tim Lucas, all of whom have written their entries (at least in part) on MARTIN. I salute your taste in vampire movies, even if my subject feels somewhat less unique now than it did when I chose it.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Drive-by reviews

MARIE-ANTOINETTE (2006, Sofia Coppola)- much to the dismay of some of this site's readers, I wasn't a fan of LOST IN TRANSLATION, and not surprisingly I wasn't looking forward to this. But I had no problem getting into Sofia's groove this time, largely because instead of making another film that follows a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, this is actually a movie ABOUT a shallow, cocooned young woman of privilege, as well as the environment that has created her. Without necessarily apologizing for Marie-Antoinette, Sofia manages to empathize with her by convincingly painting a portrait of the world in which she lives, heavy on age-old traditions but light on education for budding monarchs. In the end, Marie-Antoinette bore little resemblance to an actual leader because she didn't have the aptitude, training or inclination to lead the people of France, but given the nature of royal traditions, it's something of a miracle when a monarch (male or female) turns out to be a capable leader at all. Coppola, a daughter of privilege herself, sees her protagonist as both a silly girl and a victim of historical circumstance, who ended up paying with her life not merely for her own misdeeds but those of an entire ruling-class tradition. While MARIE-ANTOINETTE isn't perfect (I for one would have ended it about five minutes earlier), I think it's a mistake to take the film to task for its lack of explicit historical context- that Marie doesn't hear the rumblings of the French Revolution until it's practically banging at her door is the point. And I was pleased that Coppola's much-ballyhooed use of non-period music wasn't as pervasive as I'd feared- while not all her song choices work (moratorium on "I Want Candy," s'il vous plaît), her underscoring of the coronation scene to The Cure's "Plainsong" pays off beautifully. Rating: **1/2.

THE PRESTIGE (2006, Christopher Nolan)- it's clearer now than ever that Nolan's pet theme isn't mental illness but obsession, all-consuming and sometimes even violent in nature. What distinguishes THE PRESTIGE from many other films on that subject is how it's seen merely through the prism of performance, as for all the harm the rival magicians vest upon each other's lives, they mostly fixate on outdoing each other in the arena of illusion. What makes the pair so absorbing is how, for all their similar interests, they're opposites personality-wise, with Hugh Jackman playing Angier as a world-class showman, while Christian Bale's Borden lacks the polish of his colleague but is far more imaginative. Naturally, I would like to tread lightly for those who've yet to see it- after all, half the fun of this is the element of surprise- but for all Nolan's own stylistic bravado, his offhandedness at unveiling the plot's twists and turns puts him much closer in spirit to Borden than to Angier. The film has its problems (never has Scarlett Johansson felt more incidental to a film), and I'm not sure how much is going on on a subtextual level, but it's a heck of a ride with strong work from Bale and Jackman and a great supporting turn from David Bowie, who's as good here as he's been in three decades. Rating: ***.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006, Clint Eastwood)- after the triumphs of MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, a letdown was probably overdue, but while FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is a perfectly serviceable male weepie, it never quite succeeds at a higher level. Part of the problem is that the storytelling is so scattershot that no storyline, character or relationship emerges to bear the weight of the plot. MYSTIC RIVER had a similar trio of main characters, but whereas that film was dominated by the strength of their personalities, FLAGS' heroes are the pawns of the plot rather than its movers. What makes the strongest impression here is the contrast between the grim realities of the battlefield and the kitsch that's used to sell it on the homefront (all that's missing from the famed Iwo Jima snapshot is a "Mission Accomplished" banner). But while this is a compelling theme for a film, the rest of the movie is too caught up in Greatest Generation nostalgia and an unwieldy-yet-undercooked framing device to be more than a modest success. Rating: **1/2.

SHORTBUS (2006, John Cameron Mitchell)- pretty much exactly the kind of movie I was expecting it to be and little else, which is sort of deadly when you're talking about an allegedly envelope-pushing work. To cite a somewhat dissimilar counter-example, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN worked because it took a "gay love story" outside the settings in which homosexuals are generally found onscreen, situating it instead within the traditionally "masculine" world of the West. In contrast, SHORTBUS is a film about sexually-adventurous characters, set largely in the hip, bohemian world of New York City. Setting a story of this nature among this crowd is immensely flattering to exactly the kind of audience member who would be inclined to see a movie like this, the kind of creatively-inclined, idealistic lefty who envisions New York as a mecca for sex and art. Which is not a bad view per se, but for the fact that Mitchell's vision of this mecca is fairly Disneyfied- for a film that presumably espouses a democratic view of sex, nearly all the cast members are good-looking, sexually-attractive, and in the cases of the males, well-endowed. Of course, there are a handful of token fatties, but I'd venture to guess that even in a place like Shortbus most of the bodies would be somewhere between these two extremes. Perhaps most detrimental to the film is the fact that Mitchell and his cast didn't see much need to give the characters personalities- with the exceptions of Severin and maybe Sofia, there's little going on with these people aside from balling and whining about balling. And what kind of half-assed boho world is it where a character calls herself Severin and nobody even brings up "Venus in Furs"? Rating: *1/2.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My long-in-development salute to actor-directors (the good ones, anyway)

Much has been written of late about this year’s incarnation of Oscar™ season, loaded with prestige-heavy films of import, designed to make people forget for a while that Hollywood makes most of its money off artless crap. Frankly, I’m bored by most Academy-bait. But when I was doing some research into what movies might give me a reprieve from all the self-importance (BORAT… niiiiiiiiice), I began to notice a trend. Namely, that a surprising number of movies this fall are directed by actors. A partial list: Clint Eastwood’s FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO, Todd Field’s LITTLE CHILDREN, John Cameron Mitchell’s SHORTBUS, Christopher Guest’s FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, Bobcat Goldthwait’s SLEEPING DOGS LIE, Emilio Estevez’s BOBBY, Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY BALBOA, and Mr. Show star Bob Odenkirk’s LET’S GO TO PRISON.

The idea of actors who turn to directing is nothing new. But why does it happen? One obvious answer is so they can have more control over their films. For example, Charlie Chaplin was a dynamic performer, but it’s his sensibility as a filmmaker that created that unique Chaplin cocktail of slapstick and pathos. In addition, actors by and large are notoriously needy, and even in the most lauded careers there has been the urge to validated as something more than an actor- a true filmic artist, as it were.

But what kind of actor makes a good filmmaker? Frankly, it’s impossible to say. For every Charles Laughton (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) there’s a John Wayne (THE GREEN BERETS). One might have expected that Johnny Depp, given his idiosyncratic nature as an actor, might have proven a compelling filmmaker, but those unfortunate few who’ve seen THE BRAVE can attest otherwise. And who honestly saw Clint Eastwood coming? Judging even by his earliest performances, the simplicity of his directorial work should have been apparent, but his capable hand at making old-school male weepies is surprising even after a few dozen films behind the camera.

Below, I’ve listed (in no particular order) six films directed by currently-working actors who made the transition behind the camera with nary a hitch.

A MIGHTY WIND (Christopher Guest)

For some reason, comedic performers have proven to be among the most successful at making the switch to filmmaking. Chaplin, Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Albert Brooks, and numerous others have had at least some success in the director’s chair. But what is it about comedy that makes so many of its practitioners well-suited to directing? One possibility is that the setup-and-payoff nature of comedy lends itself well to telling a story in longer form. In addition, there’s a tendency in many actor-directors to more indulgent of their fellow actors, and while drama by and large demands more controlled performances, over-the-top acting is more at home in comedy.

In Guest’s best work as a director, he has trained his camera on rarefied subcultures, chock full of strange but mostly likable people. These characters, combined with the semi-improvised mockumentary format favored by Guest, might lend themselves to snarky irony in other hands, but Guest and his troupe of performers (including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and the invaluable Fred Willard) manage to be good-natured and still funny. In A MIGHTY WIND, his best film to date, Guest has a genuine affection for the film’s aging folkies, so that hidden within the laughs- two words: “wha’ happened?”- there are surprisingly touching moments as well.

(Stanley Tucci)

Has it really been five years since Tucci last directed a movie? Much like Guest, Tucci has a formidable company to call upon when he makes a film (Campbell Scott, Ian Holm, Hope Davis, et al). But while Guest specializes in variations on a favorite format, Tucci has proven skilled at door-slamming farce (THE IMPOSTERS), literate true-life drama (JOE GOULD’S SECRET) and especially domestic dramedy (BIG NIGHT). Likewise, all of Tucci’s films hearken back to the mid-20th century, a pre-rock’n’roll world of flannel suits and fedoras, trans-Atlantic cruises and oak-paneled family-owned eateries.

He does so most memorably in BIG NIGHT, a lovingly-rendered story of two Italian brothers operating a modest restaurant, who pull out all the stops on one night when they get wind that Louis Prima might drop in (that the film’s Guffman is Prima instead of, say, Frank Sinatra says it all about how thoroughly Tucci has absorbed this world). While Tucci always casts himself in a prominent role, he does so modestly, generously bestowing the plum roles on his costars and friends- one might accuse Tony Shalhoub of stealing BIG NIGHT away from Tucci but for the fact that Tucci gave him the role in the first place.

(Note: yes, I realize that Tucci co-directed this with Campbell Scott. But having seen both Tucci and Scott's subsequent films, I'm confident in saying that BIG NIGHT's style hews much closer to Tucci's sensibility than Scott's. Maybe I am an auteurist after all...)

BUFFALO ’66 (Vincent Gallo)

Vincent Gallo is a fascinating case- a guy who has always been too much of a prickly individualist to chase down stardom, while carving himself out a niche in the world of independent and art cinema. So it should have come as little surprise that BUFFALO ’66 was highly original. What is unexpected about the film is that, much like Gallo himself, the flashiness and misanthropy mask a wounded and almost childlike romanticism (this can also be found in Gallo’s semi-infamous but still awesome follow-up, THE BROWN BUNNY). In telling the story of prickly ex-con Billy Brown, Gallo employs a number of unique visual tropes (the way he begins flashbacks by having the image emerge from a character’s forehead is inspired), but for all the invention on display the style is dictated by the story, underlining the jagged mindset of its protagonist. After the critical community piled on THE BROWN BUNNY Gallo announced that he would never direct another film, but I for one wish he would reconsider.


Zatoichi was the hero of a long-running series of Japanese action comedies before Kitano got his hands him, and if it seems foolish for anyone to attempt a new take on such a firmly-established character, reflect that idiosyncratic choices have always been a hallmark of Kitano’s career. Instead of the exaggerated blind schtick of the old films, Takeshi’s version is calm and thoughtful, taking in the world around him through his remaining senses in order to have the edge on those who would challenge him. Rather than portraying the character’s perception of the world through his performance- Kitano is too minimalist an actor for such affectations- he manifests it through the direction of the film, in particular the film’s soundscape, which finds rhythmic and even musical patterns in the activities of those around Zatoichi. That the climax of the film is not an action scene but a rousing, stomping dance number may let down genre purists, but anyone who has followed Kitano’s career learned long ago to expect the unexpected.

THE APOSTLE (Robert Duvall)

Unlike many of the most accomplished actor-directors, who tend to give the real showboat roles to people other than themselves, Duvall places himself front and center here. THE APOSTLE is a star vehicle, yes, but to say the film exists to support Duvall’s electrifying performance overlooks the other formidable aspects the film has to offer. In most Hollywood movies about preachers, they’re slick con artists, using their skill and confidence to bilk the faithful out of their money, but Duvall’s Sonny is first and foremost a believer. He sermonizes not just as a way of talking about God but of talking to Him as well, as in a great scene when loudly prays while alone in his bedroom. Above all, THE APOSTLE is a respectful film, not only of those who preach religion but also those they teach, and the communities in which they live (I can’t think of another film that portrays a small-town Southern setting so realistically). THE APOSTLE’s leisurely pace isn’t suited to every film- Duvall’s subsequent directorial effort, ASSASSIONATION TANGO, suffered from sluggishness- but part of being a good director is finding a style that fits the story being told, and the style of THE APOSTLE fits the film like a glove.


One of the most familiar pieces of advice for first-time authors is, “write what you know.” In his debut effort, Roth took this advice to heart by telling the story of a seemingly ordinary family that begins to come apart when the son discovers his father and sister’s incestuous relationship. Roth has admitted in interviews to being abused as a child, but what is striking about THE WAR ZONE is that, rather than shooting the film in a rough-edged handheld style (the way his countryman Gary Oldman did with his debut effort NIL BY MOUTH), Roth’s filmmaking maintains a kind of distance that’s sort of elegant without soft-pedaling the harrowing nature of the material. The issues of incest and sexual abuse are hardly black-and-white in THE WAR ZONE- while son Tom insists on bringing the truth to light, there are too many other issues in play within the family for it to be that simple. Seven years after THE WAR ZONE, Roth has yet to direct another film, but even if he never again steps behind the camera, he can claim not only one of the greatest first films ever by an actor-turned-filmmaker, but one of the greatest directorial debuts as well.

One final thought- of all the actors out there, who would make a good filmmaker? Even with the above test cases and more besides, it’s still tough to say. Even now it’s hard to reconcile Edward Norton, the searing star of such daring fare as THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT, AMERICAN HISTORY X and FIGHT CLUB, with his directorial debut, the innocuous romantic comedy KEEPING THE FAITH. But after doing some thinking, two fascinating possibilities have emerged.

The first is Tilda Swinton- not necessarily a household name, but never mind. Throughout her career Swinton has proven as much of a maverick as anyone in her profession, starring in films by Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Tim Roth as well as doing unique character work in big-budget fare like CONSTANTINE and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. In short, she has always been one to follow her own muse wherever it leads, and if ever it leads her into the director’s chair, I would have high hopes for the result.

The second name the sprung to mind was Robert Downey Jr. Here’s an actor who is as talented as anyone of his generation, in large part because of his boundless inventiveness. In addition, he clearly has personal issues, which if he can manage to harness them in a creative context would make his work all the more interesting. And finally, look at the movies his dad made. Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie by the son of the director of PUTNEY SWOPE? If he has inherited any of his father’s warped sensibility- and Downey Jr.’s performances seem to indicate that he has- than an attempt at directing would be interesting, to say the least. I know I’d be there opening weekend.

So what do you think? What are your favorite films by presently-active actor/filmmakers? And what actors do you think might just have what it takes to make the transition?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Satantango (1994, Bela Tarr) [In praise of long-ass movies]

First things first. Click here and scroll down to #25. Aww yeeah.

It seems only fitting that the 100th entry on this blog should be devoted to one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. SATANTANGO is a landmark film, one that has deservedly acquired a rep in the years since it first premiered. However, a major part of the vibe I've always gotten from the SATANTANGO hype has to do with how long and austere it is, which after seeing the film seems a tad off the mark. Long it most certainly is- at 7 1/2 hours, there's no escaping that- but once you grow accustomed to Tarr's style, it's so compulsively watchable that one's patience is well-rewarded. Plus- and this shocked the hell out of me- parts of it are funny as hell. A barroom scene about halfway through is brilliant, with half a dozen or so drunks stumbling around to a seemingly endless accordian tune, and the film sustains the scene beyond any logical breaking point, not by introducing new surprise elements into the scene as most filmmakers would, but by having the actors subtly vary their characters' routines as though they're stuck in the same infinite loop as the music (e.g. the dude who keeps balancing the cheese roll on his forehead).

Other sections of this film are as emotionally affecting as this one is hilarious. The justifiably famous sequence involving a little girl and a cat feels almost like a Bresson film dropped into the middle of the story, and an hourlong section devoted to a drunken doctor who stumbles out to buy brandy is even better. Once again, the key to these sections' effectiveness lies in Tarr's exquisite attention to detail, as well as his filmmaking style. Gus Van Sant cribbed both Tarr's use of long Steadicam shots and his propensity for non-linear chronology in his recent trilogy, but he lacked Tarr's genius for immediacy, employing these stylistic tropes in the service of a more conventionally-building narrative. Tarr's cinema is about the here and now of the world within the film, and the fact that he splits SATANTANGO into discrete sections only underlines this.

In a certain movie-related discussion group a few months back, I witnessed a discussion which was prompted by the question, "why is it that nearly every really long film seems to get universal critical acclaim?" Frankly, I'm not sure it's as simple as that- in today's wintry film distribution climate, it's hard enough to get an arthouse film seen, so if it's a prohibitive length, it's gotta be damned good or nobody will bother to distribute it. But another answer to that question comes back to the kinds of filmmakers who would make such long films. It can be such arduous work to make a film, long or short, that if a filmmaker is is going to make the effort and fight the overwhelming urge to shoehorn his vision into an easily-packaged running time, it's almost certainly prone to be something noteworthy. And SATANTANGO fits the bill in spades. While certain sequences of the film might stand alone effectively, taken together I can't imagine it being any shorter than it is. It needs every minute it takes to unfold, and Tarr uses every minute wisely.

It's for this reason that I can't imagine having to see the film for the first time on video or DVD. I've said it before, but it bears repeating- it's the long, meditative films that are diminished most by home viewing, not merely because of the smaller size of the image but, more importantly, because of all the distractions of home. Home is such a familiar place that one grows accustomed to all the routine sights and sounds, to the point where anything that one sees or hears outside the movie itself can become a way of synchronizing one's internal clock to the outside world. Ideally, in a theatre, most of these distractions are gone- no cars driving by, no clock on the wall, no telephone ringing (I can't imagine what kind of person would bring a cell phone to SATANTANGO), and the film itself so dominates one's theatrical experience that the rhythm of the film takes over.

This was especially true for me yesterday, when seeing SATANTANGO for the first time. I know it's a cliché to say that a great long film doesn't feel as long as it really is, but in my case it's true. I woke up around 9 AM yesterday, ate breakfast around 10, then went to see the film, which began at noon. It was shown with two intermissions, during which time I ate two cookies (one each break) and drank a few sips of water. After it ended at 8:30, I wasn't hungry or thirsty at all- SATANTANGO had so completely thrown off my internal clock that I found it hard to believe that I had gone almost 11 hours without a real meal. And when my usual bedtime of 11:30 rolled around, I was wide awake. There are many amazing films out there, but how many can pull off a feat like that?

In short, see SATANTANGO, if you haven't already. If you have, see it again if you get the chance. I might end up buying the DVD, but I know it won't be the same, and watching the DVD would be more for the sake of sampling the film again than diving in headfirst as I would in the theatre. You can be sure that if it comes to town again, I'll be there, front and center, ready once more to get my world rocked.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)

It's hard to describe this movie without using that wonderful Boston phrase "wicked awesome," so I'll just get it out of the way now and move on. THE DEPARTED finds Scorsese in full-on entertainer mode, creating his most audience-pleasing film since GOODFELLAS, but as with GOODFELLAS there's more going on than a superlative genre offering. THE DEPARTED, like the original INFERNAL AFFAIRS, is at its core a study in opposites- with that ingenious premise (cop infiltrates the mob, gangster infiltrates the cops), how could it not be? But whereas the HK version concentrated on the central dichotomy, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan expand the story's scope and find good-and-evil counterparts throughout- Damon vs. DiCaprio, good father-figure Martin Sheen vs. bad-dad Jack Nicholson, aggressive second-bananas Mark Wahlberg vs. Ray Winstone, etc. Another recurring theme in the film is numbness (the song "Comfortably Numb," Jack throwing a fistful of coke at his girlfriend and directing her "don't move till you're numb"), in particular the kind of numbness that sets in when a person's moral compass is busted. As Nicholson says in the opening monologue, "they told us we could either be cops or criminals... but when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" The running time for THE DEPARTED is roughly 2 1/2 hours, but for its length there's almost no fat in the film, and the first 90 minutes or so establish the characters so firmly that once the cops-and-robbers conflict finally comes to a head (around the time a body drops from the top of a building), everything has been set up perfectly. DiCaprio has the showier role of the two leads, but Damon is equally good, and Scorsese was wise to cast him as the mob's man in the State Police- his golden-boy smile is an asset for the character, while his intent, loaded stare and broad body are surprisingly menacing. The supporting cast- Nicholson, Winstone, Sheen, Vera Farmiga- is the best I've encountered all year, with Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin alternating scene-stealing duties as the two most vocal lawmen on the force. THE DEPARTED isn't quite perfect- in a film that doesn't really insist on itself for the most part, the final scene is over-emphatic- but it's Hollywood filmmaking of the highest order, and as rewarding a time as I've had at the multiplex all year. Rating: ***1/2.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Grab bag

One distinct pleasure for a certain stripe of DVD collector (myself included) is a trip to the local used DVD seller. Sure, nowadays one can find just about any DVD of note at Best Buy or Borders, or failing that Amazon and eBay should carry it. But used DVD shopping isn't about looking for something in particular; it's about discoveries. It's about finding a $5 copy of THEY LIVE or THE 4TH MAN- both awesome movies, but neither at the top of my shopping list. It's like when grandma used to cart you along to thrift stores and flea markets, only not so much of that mothball smell. Back in Akron, there were several CD Exchange stores that stocked a fairly impressive array of DVDs as well as CDs and even LPs. I haven't found something comparable yet since moving back to Columbus, although if anybody has any recommendations I'm all ears.

The downside to buying used DVDs, of course, is that quality can be an issue. Most stores of this kind have some degree of quality control, but occasionally a scratched DVD will end up on the shelf. And in general, the better the perceived value, the sketchier the quality. As the old saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I was reminded of this after I came home from the annual Big Book Sale at the Columbus Main Library, where a stack of their old DVDs were also being sold for $2. A few of them caught my eye so I grabbed them, but the room was pretty packed and I didn't have the luxury of inspecting any of them before making my purchase. When I got home, I popped in my newly-bought copy of MALICE (a quintessential used-DVD-store movie if there ever was one), and about five minutes in, around the time Baldwin starts dressing down the doctor who questioned his judgment in the O.R, the picture starts jumping. Figures, I thought. I took the DVD out of the player and inspected it only to find a pretty intimidating-looking scratch. Then, to be on the safe side, I inspected one of my other purchases, Sam Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON, only to discover that the hole in the center was cracked.

It all comes down to one thing- there are far too goddamn many people out there who have no idea how to take care of DVDs. As fragile as videos are, as long as your VCR is in good working order and you don't leave a video in a hot car you're not likely to damage the tape without putting forth a little effort. But DVDs, like CDs and LPs before them, are at the mercy of their handlers. The playable surface is there for all the world to see. It only needs to be dropped once to land on the wrong side and damage the viewing experience. But there's a big difference between the damage of accidentally dropping a DVD on the floor and repeated, negigent mishandling of your DVDs. Negligence is a whole bunch of greasy fingerprints on the playable surface, or cracked center holes from incorrectly removing the disc from the case, or giant scratches from doing who knows what (ultimate Frisbee? Skeet shooting?).

I worked one summer in a video store when I was in college, and I was shocked by how little people care for the movies they rent. I suppose they figure that since it's not their property they don't have to take care of it. I can only imagine how much worse it is for public libraries, who don't charge patrons to borrow movies. I do know that, having seen how crappy some people treat DVDs, I would never want to work at a video store now. And the sad thing is that it's not hard to keep DVDs in reasonably good condition. There are exactly four things to remember to keep your DVDs nice: remove carefully from the case, hold the DVD using only the edge and the center hole, place the DVD gently in the center of the DVD tray before closing your DVD player, and store the DVD inside the case when you're not playing it. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

It's clear to see why DVD sales have exceeded all expectations. To begin with, they're cheap to buy right off the bat, as compared to VHS tapes, which were almost always priced-to-rent for several month before the prices were lowered for the buyers' market. In addition, if DVDs are cared for, there's no degradation of quality after multiple viewings as there is with VHS. And DVD appeals in particular to people with enough money to afford fancy televisions and home theatre systems, since DVDs allow for multiple sound formats and greater picture clarity than videos ever gave. It's too bad, then, that too many of the people who have embraced the DVD revolution fail to think about keeping their purchases in good, playable condition. They need to realize that neglecting their DVDs that they're turning a disc that can in theory stay playable for years and years into a worthless drink coaster. In addition, people who do care about DVDs- not just new ones, but used ones- lose out on the deal too, since if the quality of secondhand DVDs decline so will the market for them, and a fugitive pleasure of the DVD enthusiast will become a thing of the past.


- I recently overhauled my yearly list page. I guess the impetus first came when I decided it was high time to post a list of my favorite films of the silent (pre-1930) era, which I've neglected to do for far too long. While I was compiling this list, I decided to just go ahead and make lists for every subsequent decade as well. And when it came time to post the lists on my site, the idea struck me to divide my lists up by decade, with the decade best-of list at the top of its page and the list for each year of the decade listed underneath. The result is that the lists should be more browsable for visitors to my site, since rather than scrollingscrollingscrolling down to a particular year one can find it within its respective decade. Anyway, enjoy!

- I also finally went and acknowledged that PLAY TIME is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of my favorites as well. In other News of the Obvious, the Beatles are awesome, picking your nose on a date is a bad idea, and babies are really adorable provided they aren't yours.

The Science of Sleep (2006, Michel Gondry)

As I suspected, Michel Gondry has a fascinating eye, but without a strong second presence keeping him on the straight and narrow, his work is little more than eye candy. Whereas ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND had a visionary Charlie Kaufman screenplay, SCIENCE is Gondry through and through. In some respects the films are quite similar- both stories focus on introverted guys and their lurchingly awkward relationships, and Gael Garcia Bernal's Stephane even sports a similar wool cap to Jim Carrey's Joel. But whereas Joel was complicated- he's judgmental, for one, and also sort of constipated emotionally- Stephane is pretty two-dimensional, a creative guy who has trouble distinguishing dreams and reality. On top of that, Charlotte Gainsbourg barely registers as Stephanie, failing to distinguish a role that is little more than that indie staple, the quirky best-pal/girlfriend. As a result, their relationship loses a lot of its inherent interest- there's no moment between the two that rings as true as, say, the scene in ETERNAL SUNSHINE where Clementine busts Joel's chops for referring to her as a "wino." Surprisingly, though Gondry's visual whimsy dominates the proceedings, it actually doesn't get old- he keeps the images fairly fresh, and the fact that many of the effects are practical rather than digital helps them go down easier. I also dug the bitchin' Nehru jacket that Garcia Bernal sports throughout almost the entire film, although what that has to do with anything is anyone's guess. Maybe one day Gondry will create something on his own that's as good as his work with others (not just ETERNAL SUNSHINE but also his videos and DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY), although for this to happen he'll have to try harder to give us a reason to care about what happens. Rating: **.