Sunday, April 20, 2008

Criterion Watch: The Return

Why the hell not, right? Who needs reasons when you've got Criterion? Plenty of good stuff on the way, including the DVDs that were just announced for July.

I'd have to say that Dreyer's Vampyr is the highlight for the new bunch. I realize there's already a DVD floating around, but the quality is kind of crappy and the extras are practically nonexistent. So now thanks to Criterion I'll have a worthy DVD of this to place alongside the other Dreyer classics in my collection.

I love the Tati I've seen, but for some reason I have yet to see his late-period film Trafic. This release means I have no excuse anymore.

Likewise, I haven't seen Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine. But if it's good enough for Criterion, it's good enough for me.

And I would be remiss to overlook the new pressing of Kurosawa's masterful thriller High and Low. If nothing else, the new cover art...

... pretty much kicks the crap out of the original.

And speaking of cover art, Criterion's graphic designers are pretty much miracle workers. Check out what they've cooked up for the June's release of Paul Schrader's sublime Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters...

... and its companion piece, Mishima's own Patriotism.

Just... wow. Eye-popping stuff, especially the Schrader.

Finally, any thoughts on what the latest Criterion Newsletter hint might be?

They've already boxed Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, so it won't be that. I was stumped for a while, but an IMDb search revealed that Roberto Rossellini has made films about all three of the thinkers the hippo mentions, as well as- wait for it- Augustine of Hippo. So I'm thinking there will be a box set of Rossellini's historical films on the way.

Frankly, this is good news, and not simply for the obvious reasons. I've seen three Rossellini films to date- Open City, Voyage to Italy, and The Flowers of St. Francis. But while I respect his work, I have yet to find a movie of his that I can wholeheartedly embrace. It's an odd thing- the more I look the more acclaim I see for him, but I feel like I'm sort of on the outside looking in in this respect. Perhaps these later films will allow me to finally get with the program.

So what other acclaimed auteurs are in the pipeline for Criterion? I still think Max Ophüls would be an awesome fit, and most of his work is woefully unavailable on Region 1 DVD. A Criterion Letter From An Unknown Woman would be something I could definitely get behind.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Now that he knows who I really am, he respects me."

Note: As promised oh so long ago, here's my review of Jérome Boivin's BAXTER. I've also posted this over at The Screengrab, but the person who requested the review- the one and only Victor- is unable to access that site, so I'm posting it here for his benefit. Also, here are the links to the other requested reviews:

Jason Alley- Les Revenants (2004, Robin Campillo)

Steven Carlson- Les Anges du Péché (1943, Robert Bresson)

From the time we’re young, we’re told that dogs are “man’s best friend.” Indeed, the popular image of dogs is as friendly, playful creatures who love us unconditionally. It gives us comfort to believe this, but things are more complicated than this simplistic image would suggest. Far from being blindly loyal companions, dogs tend to react to their surroundings, especially the sounds, smells and behaviors of those nearby. How far of a stretch is it to imagine dogs actually thinking?

The plot of Baxter finds its canine protagonist cycling through a trio of different owners, each of whom treats him differently. Baxter’s first owner is the elderly widow Madeleine, who is frightened of him and keeps him around primarily to have another living creature in the house. After her death, he’s adopted by a young couple who shower him with love and affection until they have a baby of their own. Finally, Baxter ends up with Charles, a teenaged sadist who disciplines him. One of the central ideas of Baxter is the way he responds to each owner’s treatment. As a dog, he is never explicitly told his purpose in life, so he has to figure it out as he goes. This is fine by him- as he says in voiceover, “I thought I had a lot to learn from humans.”

One of the reasons why Baxter works is the casting of its lead “actor.” Most dogs in cinema fall into three distinct categories: cute, noble, or malevolent. Baxter doesn’t really fit into any of these classifications. With his small stature, beady eyes, and pointy ears, Baxter is shifty-looking, but not especially scary. In addition, he doesn’t make a great deal of noise unless he’s provoked. There’s something thoughtful about Baxter, which makes him ideal for a film whose tagline is “beware the dog who thinks.”

In the course of the film, we hear Baxter’s thoughts in detail, in voiceover. Interestingly, they sound like the kinds of thoughts an actual dog might have. Many of them focus on smells, especially as they relate to the people around him. It’s in Baxter’s nature to react to smells, whether it’s the fear of Madeleine (“I’m uneasy when people are scared,” he says) or the love bestowed on him by the young woman. Throughout the film, the sense of smell comes to symbolize deep-seated instincts, an idea that’s made most explicit when he meets a female spaniel in heat whose smell he can’t resist, try as he might. To his shame, Baxter discovers that smell brings out “unnatural thoughts”- which of course are the most natural thoughts in the world.

By contrast, Baxter also believes he has a higher purpose for himself, even if he can’t figure out what it is. The old woman doesn’t help him in this regard- she mostly keeps him cooped up in her home as her own life falls into disarray. He flowers under the attention of the young couple- love brings out the goodness in him- but this love turns to jealousy when they have a baby. It’s not until he meets the boy that he’s truly in his element- Charles is a harsh master, but Baxter finds comfort in servitude, and respite from his “unnatural thoughts.” He calls his relationship with Charles “the greatest pleasure I ever had. He commands, I obey.”

One of the most interesting touches of Baxter is the way Boivin shows us the lives of his characters independent of Baxter. Much of the film is seen through Baxter’s small black eyes, but occasionally we are given insights into his owners that he couldn’t possibly know. Early in the film, Madeleine tells a friend, “growing old is a matter of dignity,” a statement that takes on irony after she becomes a shut-in and refuses to see anyone. By contrasting the lives the characters lead with Baxter’s impressions of them, we see the difference between his point of view and the traditional human perspective.

Consider Baxter’s behavior after the young woman gets pregnant. The first change he senses is her smell- “now it’s like smelling two people.” He refers to her pregnancy as “sickness,” and remarks at how her husband treats her differently now, no longer making love to her in the evening. After the baby is born, he can’t understand their love for “the creature”, stating “I’ve never seen anything so weak and mindless.” Only later does he experience this for himself, after the spaniel gives birth to puppies who smell like him.

It’s in the final third of film, in which Baxter meets Charles, “a human who’s just like me,” that Baxter takes on a new level of fascination. Once Baxter has discovered his function- to obey- there is conflict between his instincts and what he perceives as his higher purpose. After his “shameful” experience with the spaniel, Baxter finds he has to regain the boy’s respect through a show of strength, which he accomplishes by killing another dog. Yet Baxter will not let himself kill mindlessly. “I killed when the situation was unbearable of when I felt threatened,” he says, but the boy doesn’t understand. At the film’s climax, Baxter finds himself in a spot that places his function at war with his “unnatural thoughts,” and unfortunately for him, he decides to serve that higher calling. It’s then that he learns his final lesson, “never be obedient.”

The recent Lionsgate DVD release of Baxter positions the film as a conventional killer-dog thriller. However, Cujo this isn’t. There’s something philosophical about the film that makes deeply troubling in a way most films of this sort don’t even try to be. Boivin’s view of human nature isn’t an especially hopeful one- even the film’s most loving characters are seen more as exceptions than the norm. In light of the suffering we see, Baxter’s point of view becomes perfectly understandable. If nothing else, it gives me pause to wonder what The Girls think of me.

Face Time #42 (Hearing in color)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Movies of My Life #4

I don’t know how many of you know this, but before I embarked on my journey through cinema, my great love was music. In my younger days, I excelled in many subjects at school, but none brought me the same pleasure as music. As an awkward, skinny kid who couldn’t play sports worth a damn, music gave me something I could both enjoy and do well. I took as many opportunities as possible, playing in both the concert band and jazz band at school, as well as singing in my church choir before joining the chorale at school once I had another period free. But the source of my love for music was the dozen years I took of piano lessons, between the ages of five and seventeen years.

My mother, happy as a clam that she’d instilled some culture in her older son, did everything she could to encourage me. Not being a musician herself, there wasn’t much concrete instruction she could give me, but she fostered a good environment for me in other ways. She would take me to local performances and concerts whenever possible, and she often played classical music at home. Sometimes, I’d glimpse her sitting in the next room, listening quietly while I practiced. And for years, she would buy me a small bust of a composer for my birthday, one whose base contained a music box.

At the time, I knew little about composers that I couldn’t have learned from the music boxes. To me, they were just famous dead guys who wrote music. This all changed for me in fourth or fifth grade when she first showed me Milos Forman’s Amadeus. To see the life of Mozart come alive onscreen was an eye-opening experience for me. All that music I knew, and the man who wrote it, all in one movie! If Back to the Future was my favorite movie growing up, Amadeus ran a close second.

At the time, given my hunger for music, I’m sure I would have enjoyed a biography of just about any composer. But for me, Amadeus was the right movie at the right time for more reasons than that. Most of my impressions of the great composers- and the great men in general- were the ossified images from the history books. In my mind, they were noble men with strong profiles, whose lives were so full accomplishing great deeds that there was no time left to do what normal people did. Amadeus was different. In the film’s early scenes- the ones that made the biggest impression on me- he was the genius as a spoiled, goofy, flatulent brat who mostly got away with his behavior because he was so unmistakably brilliant.

Needless to say, I wanted to be Mozart, even if by that time I was already behind schedule. And I honestly thought I could be. After all, that’s what they always told us- you can be whatever or whoever you want to be, as long as you try. And try I did, practicing as much as possible and learning all I could, getting good enough that I was the final performer in my elementary school’s annual talent show for three years straight, from fourth through sixth grade. Yes sir, I was on my way.

Of course, I wasn’t. As my mother sometimes said whenever my head got too big, I was a big fish in a little pond. For all but a select few, the point eventually comes where our talent has taken us as far as it will go. After a while, my best ceased to be good enough, and it was around that time that my attention turned to other interests like playing in the band. Interests that were somewhat more social- and which, not incidentally didn’t necessarily require upwards of thirty minutes of individual practice every day.

In the ensuing years, I’ve stopped performing music altogether. Instrumental music came first once high school was over, and the vocal once I graduated from college. Yet my love for music itself remains. Having spent many years learning music for myself, I now content myself with appreciating other people’s music. I’m better equipped to admire truly great composers, and to my mind, Mozart may have been the greatest of all. His greatest music is full of awe-inspiring intricacy and technical proficiency, yet is blessed with melodies so simply, transcendently beautiful that even a child can hear their greatness. More than two centuries after his death, his work hasn’t aged a day.

Yet as the years pass, I find myself drawn more and more to the character of Salieri than to my former role model Mozart. When we’re young we’re told we can do anything, but life soon teaches almost everyone otherwise. This can be a painful revelation, especially for those who honestly believe they’re destined for greatness. To be good, but just not quite good enough, is difficult for people to accept. Take it from someone who struggled with the idea for years.

Unlike Salieri, I haven’t risen to a high level of achievement in my field of choice. But in nearly all my endeavors in recent years, I’ve struggled to maintain a foothold while seeing others who seem far less deserving pass me by. The great irony of Salieri’s career as a musician is that he followed the rules and lived a clean, focused life in order to serve his art, only to discover that history rewards brilliance rather than diligence. I can relate to this as well- most people are forced to obey the rules, but the ones who truly soar are those who don’t need the rules.

There's a joke to the effect of, “if everyone’s kid is so brilliant, why are there so many mediocre adults?” Of course, it’s easy to be talented when you’re a child- after all, it’s not like you have much else to do. But one can’t live one’s adult life in a vacuum. It’s a messy, chaotic world, one that funnels even the most intelligent among us into relatively conventional lifestyles. Many are called to greatness, but few, it seems are chosen. When we’re young, we feel like we own the world, but although we grow, the world seems to grow even more, and part of being an adult is accepting how small- yet important- our place is in it. In the great machine, I’m just a cog, and there’s no sin in that. As Salieri says at the end of Amadeus, “mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you all!” Every time I revisit the film, I find a little more comfort in that.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Spotlight: My 10 favorite Mr Show sketches

A propos of absolutely nothing, here are ten of my favorite sketches from the greatest sketch comedy show of the past twenty years, complete with video. I've listed the sketches in chronological order:

Season 2, Episode 1: "Thrilling Miracles"

In its first season, Mr. Show was clearly still finding its way. There were some choice bits, but almost no out-and-out classics. But in the second season, the show came out swinging. The premiere's highlight was the extended "Thrilling Miracles" sketch, which begins as an innocuous infomercial about the new "Super-Pan" and gets increasingly more bizarre as it goes on- "the pan kisses you! Kiss the pan!"

Season 2, Episode 4: "Van Hammersly, Champion Billiard Player"

Clueless celebrities provided endless comedic fodder for the Mr. Show gang. Here, Bob Odenkirk plays a cheeseball billiards champ hawking a line of educational videos and toss off one of my all-time favorite Mr. Show lines: "That's when Lincoln said, 'don't diss my homies!'"

Season 3, Episode 2: "Cock Ring Warehouse"

I believe it was Molière who stated that the phrase "cock ring" is never not funny. In perhaps the best commercial spoof in Mr. Show's entire run, this sketch squeezes more laughs out of a minute than most current episodes of Saturday Night Live get from an entire show. Dig the cut-rate commercial aesthetic!

Season 3, Episode 2: "The Bob LaMonta Story"

Whenever I hear people complaining about the historical inaccuracies of an Oscar-bait biopic, all I can think of is this brilliant spoof of same. Strangely enough, the exaggerated "retarded" performances of Bob Odenkirk and Jill Talley are somehow more convincing than Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister.

Season 3, Episode 3: "The Altered State of Druggachusettes"

If I had to pick an all-time favorite episode in Mr. Show history, it would probably be this one, which featured such memorable bits as "Ventriloquist Wars" and the indelible image of "Choo Choo, the Hurkey Jurkey Dancer." But the show was never more on its game than it was here, in what was pretty much the last word in Sid and Marty Kroft parodies.

Season 3, Episode 5: "Swear to God"

Normally, swearing holy men ranks just below swearing grannies on the list of lazy comedic tropes, but leave it to Bob Odenkirk to pull it off perfectly. What really sells it is Bob's performance, tearing into his sermon without a trace of a wink, and being all the funnier for it. In the age of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is Winton Dupree really that far removed from reality?

Season 3, Episode 7: "The Great Philouza"

You've got to love a show that devotes a full eight minutes to parodying Amadeus. At least, I do. Once again, the humor works largely through juxaposition- by taking the Amadeus template and adding innocuous marching band music and Gay Nineties fashions, the sketch is pretty priceless.

Season 3, Episode 10: "Titannica"

Of all the surreal images conjured up by Mr. Show, the most indelible was young Adam Jimmy, the metal fan who was hospitalized after a most gruesome suicide attempt. It's hard to say which is funnier- the sketch's twisted punchline, or Brian Posehn's monosyllabic work as the band's lead singer.

Season 4, Episode 2: "The Toenapper"

During its fourth and final season, Mr. Show began to get more inconsistent, but they still cranked out the occasional gem. I've always had a soft spot for this, a bit about the world's most inept kidnapper that keeps escalating in hilarity. The highlight of the series' last truly great episode.

Season 4, Episode 10: "Josh Fenderman"

The best sketch of Mr. Show final episode was also something of an anomaly in that series headliners Bob and David were almost completely absent. No matter- it's great stuff all the same, perfectly spoofing the already-familiar "True Hollywood Story" format for some big laughs. And who doesn't love Josh's stupid little dance?

Did I forget one of your favorites? Sound off in the comments.