Jay McCarroll in Boston

jay
I’ll be heading up to Boston this week for IFFBoston, where they’ll be screening the doc about Jay McCarroll, Eleven Minutes. I love Jay McCarroll. I wish I could be his friend. For a teaser here’s a snip of an interview with him that had me laughing out loud. They are discussing the reality show So You Think You Can Dance:

Q: I don’t watch that one.
A: Not to be confused with Dancing with the Stars or America’s Dance Crew, or Dance on your Own Grave. That’s the one where you kill yourself and dance on your own grave.

#5.2

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Oscar Night

As I am out in the boonies, I will be watching the Oscars at home and attending Greencine’s liveblogging of the event, which will include commentary from the lovely Filmbrain and Agnes Varnum, two bloggies I have actually met in person.

Amen Wiseman

from an interview with Fred Wiseman about his new film State Legislature:

NYMAG: People say that we’re living in a time of resurgence for documentaries, but it seems to us that most of the documentaries coming out are designed to prove some political point.

WISEMAN: Yes, they’re ideological movies. They have a political point of attack. They’re very different from what I’m doing. What’s taking place in documentaries doesn’t interest me at all. I’ve found that things are more complicated than even I assume they are when I start. And I hate the idea of simplifying material for political purpose.

Political Break

“Hillary is the ultimate in venal, ambitious, unscrupulous, Machievellian, power-mad politicos, and that is why the Dowbrigade is supporting her in this ill-fated race. The last two girly-men the Demos put up got their lunch money stolen on the way to school, and the country has been paying dearly ever since.

Maybe its time for a manly-girl who knows how to fight dirty and get even.”

link

There Will Be Blood: Sorry, But…No

After seeing There Will Be Blood, and thinking about it a bit, I said that Paul Thomas Anderson was the false prophet Eli Sunday and those raving about his film are Eli’s sheep. It’s certainly a gorgeous film, an epic one, a mammothly forceful and visceral one, I’ll give him that. But ultimately is anything being said? I see nothing more than was said in Citizen Kane ages ago, or Chinatown, or 2001, all of which the film heavily borrows from visually. I’ve seen it said many times that this film is doing something new, but can anyone explain to me what exactly that is? I see a film student’s orgasm of references and allusion, but little else, and ultimately an empty core. Elusive Lucidity said it so perfectly:

… I’m not convinced the film is more than half-baked, conceptually and thematically, and I feel as though Anderson were really sure of how he wanted to say something meaningful but spent less time on the meaning that supplied that … meaningfulness. To be clear: I’m not lodging a “style over substance” complaint, exactly, but rather suggesting that PTA knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way too well how he wants to say it. I’m pretty convinced that Anderson is an artist who wants to Say Something; less convinced that he’s accomplished at following through on those very terms. Perhaps it’s a case of “we can spot our own”–when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease. Paul Thomas Anderson sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this stage–the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through–and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.

And another great bit from Long Pauses:

… that’s where the greatest strengths of There Will Be Blood lie — the two hours of screen time enjoyed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose acting is stagey and theatrical in an Elia Kazan-ish way but whose sunburned face, stooped shoulders, and bum knee give Plainview more life than he maybe deserves… Anderson isn’t a contemplative filmmaker. He’s downright bombastic — never happier than when emotions are red-lined, music a-blaring, camera swinging at a frenzy. …Anderson is so good at those scenes, so gifted as a manipulator of our emotions and allegiances, that we overlook the banality and senselessness of the drama. What a fascinating mess of a movie.

Hear hear. When I see any of Anderson’s films I see an immature film student who adores art films but doesn’t really understand them and thinks throwing a bunch of ponderous/difficult/conflicting stuff up on the screen in gorgeous images amounts to something meaningful. And what disappoints me is that few film geeks ever agree with this, but go on with their orgy of trying to pry some meaning out of his films (it’s about capitalism vs. religion! a religious allegory! an allegory for bush! blech blech blech…) and falling right into his giggling schoolboy trap.

Much as many do with the other mammoth fraud out there now, Juno. See post below.

UPDATE: Also wanted to link a podcast on the subject from some like-minded people over at Steady Diet of Film. One of them says something I have thought many times—many critics who say they love this film say they are speechless, dumbfounded, don’t know what to say…implying that it’s because the film’s so powerful, but in my opinion, it’s because there’s just nothing to say. There’s nothing to be wrung from the film, it’s just a virtuoso Daniel Day Lewis flexing his ample acting muscle, no more no less.

And that milkshake metaphor is bullshit. PT Anderson does not understand metaphor. I’m posting here a comment I made over at Chuck’s blog:

“…from what i recall, in the context of the oil business, daniel plainview is saying he’s pumping oil out from all of the land around that one plot, and because it’s just one big sea of oil down there, he doesn’t need that one plot–it’ll get sucked up along with the rest. the milkshake metaphor, visually, doesn’t actually work for that at all. what’s actually happening is that it’s one giant milkshake all connected, not two separate ones and i’m putting my straw into yours. he’s saying he doesn’t need a straw, basically. my 12 other straws will drain you on their own.”

Juno Addendum

Ok one more thing that sticks in my craw about Juno is that one of the adjectives used in nearly every review of the film and/or interview with screenwriter Diablo Cody is that it’s so “original,” yet, I can spot at least one joke that was stolen nearly word for word from a Mike Myers movie. The line about not being attracted to a girl because she “smells like soup” is wholly lifted from So I Married an Axe Murderer—not even a good Mike Myers movie, but a lesser-known one, so clearly more ‘indie’—someone asks Myers why he’s not into a certain girl and he says “She smelled like soup. She smelled exactly like beef vegetable soup.” And that was what, 10 years ago? 15? That’s plagiarism, baby!

And I’m sure there are many other examples in Juno whose references I just don’t get. Cody has admitted to being a voracious consumer of pop culture and this movie is more a collection of obscure references/thefts than something that sprang sparkling and original from her brain. She’s more an encyclopedia than a creative genius. And it’s more evidence that her writing seriously needs an editing, that she needs to deepen and mature as a writer and learn some control.

Ugh what am I Nanny McScreenwriter? I guess my former writing-teacher training still guides me. I like Diablo Cody. I really do. I’m only pointing this out because there seem to be so many morons out there who are allowing themselves to be fooled, gushing over what is essentially a promising but very rough first draft of a screenplay.

Juno

So I’m really late to the party on this one. My head has been in a hole or something.

I was listening to NPR recently and Terri Gross introduced an interview with the director and writer of Juno, a film I had no plans to see based on the painstakingly quirky promos for the film. But when Terri mentioned the writer’s name–Diablo Cody–I did a double-take and said wait, where do I know that name from? Then she introduced Cody as being a former blog-writer, her former blog being that of her life as a stripper. And ding! I remembered her. I used to read her blog every day, back in the day. She was a full-on peep show girl as I recall, performing for peepers. PussyRanch, her blog was called, and she had what seemed a strangely…wholesome? attitude about it. Straightforward, unabashed, unconflicted, even cheery. Indeed, so do all of the characters in Juno, with regard to teen pregnancy. Depth and complexity is clearly not Ms. Cody’s strong suit. But hey, it’s a comedy, right?

Anyway after learning who was the writer I was slightly more interested in seeing the film (though only slightly–she uses a burgerphone for chrisssakes), to see what this blogger I used to follow is now up to. I recall that her blog-writing was always a bit irritating in the same way as the film’s dialogue–showoffy, incapable of speaking plainly; ‘more is more’ is definitely Cody’s word-choice strategy. (From Reverse Shot: “It reminds me of Kingsley Amis’s criticism of his son Martin’s prose: “I think you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up, and left the room.’”)

But seeking solace from holiday family meltdowns the other day, I ducked into the AFI theater for a matinee of Juno. I didn’t plan to see it, but Sweeney Todd wasn’t screening for another 2 hours so Juno it was.

And the film was pretty much as I expected, though not quite as irritating as I’d feared. The dialogue was definitely too much, and Cody suffers from the Seinfeld syndrome of making every character speak exactly the same way. The quirkiniess wouldn’t have been so irritating if it were limited to only the character of Juno, but no, Ms. Cody can’t control herself and every other character in the film speaks in the same patterns–her dad, her friends, the store clerk that sells her the pregnancy test. Apparently no one in this town is familiar with verbal restraint.

Also a bit irritating is that the film seems to have hoodwinked a lot of people, selling itself as different or “alternative” when in fact it’s a quite wholesome feel-gooder and even a fairly conservative film. It’s Jimmy Stewart dressed in Chuck Taylors and a hoodie.

“For all its posturing as a take-no-guff whippersnapper, “Juno” is finally a square, predictable crowd-pleaser, timid on politics and reaffirming on family. Juno is identified as oddball and independent (she obnoxiously uses pipes as affectations and enjoys mentioning her plastic hamburger phone, and Bleeker’s mom pointedly says, as if to confirm it for the audience, “She’s just . . . different”), but she’s not much more interesting than your average big-screen high-schooler, and when she has questions about life and love, she goes to wise papa (JK Simmons), “Brady Bunch”-style. Is this seriously supposed to be different from Hollywood teen movies simply because it’s not about cheerleaders?”

She does, after all, get convinced by an abortion protester to keep her baby. But that’s kind of a cheap shot–is every teenager who doesn’t abort and gives her kid up for adoption in bed with the right wingers? Is abortion the only liberal route? It’s supposed to be about choice, not mandatory abortions for all, right? And in some ways the film is actually a bit subversive–the complete absence of shame, for example. Juno’s not happy about the pregnancy but she’s not going to hide in a hole and flagellate herself, either. No one in her town save the (narrative prop of a) ultrasound technician shows much judgement toward her at all. That’s not the American way. And it’s certainly not the Christian Right way. She also ultimately gives the child to a single, divorced woman to raise–Cody didn’t write a reconciliation into the couple’s ending in order to preserve conservative family values.

In the end the film is neither conservative nor progressive, but apolitical–life is messy and Juno makes decisions based on gut feelings, moment to moment, outside any overarching political agendas. Individual autonomy/expression is the guiding light here…it’s Jimmy Stewart in Chuck Taylors and a hoodie, after all.

At the BU Haneke Conference

Two professors’ descriptions of their first encounters with a Michael Haneke film:

“It was the first time in my life I have ever been existentially afraid.”

“Until 3 weeks ago I had never seen a Haneke film. I was asked to be a respondant six months ago, and agreed, but have been afraid. After seeing his films, I realized I was right to be afraid.”

Watch

Seems the Four-eyed Monsters crew has posted their entire film to YouTube, and I strongly suggest you watch it. Also, as you will see from their intro, they now have a deal with Spout.com which will give them $1 for every person who signs up for Spout, a kind of Friendster for movie geeks, through their special URL: http://www.spout.com/foureyedmonsters. They already have $24,000, which is pretty awesome. They have another $55,000 to go to pay off the cost of making the movie, though, so go on over and register for free.
Now enjoy the movie! Posted below in its entirety…

Join Spout | Buy DVD | Watch Video Podcast | Get Code

No Silverdocs For Me

Due to some communications snafus, I ended up not seeing anything at Silverdocs. So no updates. Sorry.

Silverdocs This Weekend

I didn’t think I’d make it to Silverdocs this year as I am living in New York but it looks like I’ll be there Saturday at least. Here are a few I’m going to try to attend:

LOSERSANDWINNERS-a.jpgWINNERS AND LOSERS

The Kaiserstuhl coke factory in the Ruhr Valley of Germany is the unlikely setting in Michael Loeken and Ulrike Franke’s illuminating, candid, and at times hilarious film about the shifting global economy in the East and the West.

A small number of newly laid-off German employees of a modern coking plant (which refines coal into more efficient burning coke) assist 400 Chinese laborers to dismantle the factory, piece by piece, so that it can be shipped off and rebuilt by its new owners in China. The technology transfer will advance energy efficiency in China and literally fuel the astounding growth of the Chinese economy.

In the film, culture clashes abound as German efficiency and Chinese industriousness collide – often to great comic effect. The German workers lament the loss of work and the destruction of the state-of-the-art plant that would have been the source of their own livelihood until retirement. With ample caution and restraint, and no small dose of resentment, they oversee a meticulous, thorough, and systematic breakdown of the plant. Meanwhile, the Chinese laborers work extended hours, long into the night, seemingly sure in the belief that their sacrifice will contribute to the collective glory of an economically triumphant China. At times they put their own safety at risk in order to meet the demands of their superiors, and also hasten their return to the families waiting back home.

Helvetica-A_Frankfurt_with_Manfred_Schulz.jpgHELVETICA

Once in a rare while, a film comes along that draws an irresistible story from the unlikeliest source. First-time director Gary Hustwit’s HELVETICA is just such a film. This playful exploration of the font that defined modern type design is both a history of the titular typeface and an engrossing meditation on graphic art that decodes the subtle influence of fonts on our emotions, attitudes, and desires.

Conceived in Switzerland’s Haas type foundry, Helvetica was created to encapsulate the burgeoning postwar modernist movement and its hallmarks of neutrality and order. The font quickly became the default choice for corporate branding, street signage, and print design.

Inevitably, this ubiquity sparked a design-world rebellion, and the film gives equal voice to cheeky postmodernist detractors who came to view Helvetica as a tool of corporate hegemony. Reacting against uniformity, younger artists developed hand-drawn fonts, fractured layouts and an elaborate arsenal of outré methods intended to disrupt Helvetica’s “dull blanket of sameness.”

But Helvetica’s uncanny balance and cool clarity survived this onslaught, and a new generation of designers reimagined it not as a global monster of conformity but as an infinitely extensible tool that functions in any context. As the film’s cast of design luminaries trade barbs and debate the merits and pitfalls of the world’s most famous font, the mysterious ability of Helvetica to accept and contain an array of interpretations and sensibilities emerges.

MadeinLA-a.jpgMADE IN LA

How valuable is a “Made in America” label if it just means the sweatshop is here at home?

Lupe, Maria and Maura are immigrant workers in America’s garment industry. Their American Dream entails 14-hour days and exploitation by retailers who use sub-contractors to elude responsibility for violating minimum wage law. Their workplaces bear striking resemblance to early 20th-century sweatshops, before the labor movement won rights for American workers.

Whether due to lack of knowledge about their rights or lack of confidence about asking for them, the workers accept the horrific conditions until the activists at the Garment Workers Center help them organize and legally challenge the large national retailer who sells the clothes they sew. MADE IN L.A. follows them through this struggle, capturing the uncertainties and challenges they face and celebrating the courage they develop as they begin to take control of their own lives.

NoteByNote-a.jpgNOTE BY NOTE (MAKING OF STEINWAY L1036)

Many documentaries have told the life story of a distinguished musician, recording early beginnings, influences, training, and the road to the success that has deemed the subject worthy of attention in the first place. But few, if any, have followed the life of a musical instrument, illuminating how it too has characteristics and idiosyncrasies that are integral collaborators in artistic creation. This delightful film follows the extraordinary journey of a single piano—the Steinway L1037—from its humble beginnings in the forests of the Pacific Northwest to a Steinway showroom in Queens, where it awaits its destiny, whether to sit in the corner of a Long Island living room or at the center of the Carnegie Hall stage. Filmmaker Ben Niles leaves no detail uncharted as he reveals the meticulous construction and craft that goes into the making of every single one of the world’s most celebrated instruments. The piano was the most complex instrument of its time when invented nearly three centuries ago. It is still made in much the same way—at least in the Steinway factory—and remains a miracle of engineering. Niles interviews the skilled craftsmen, factory workers, eager salesmen, amateur pianists and concert aficionados, and the myriad other people who come into contact with the grand instrument. In the end, this is an ode to the most unexpected, and perhaps ironic, of unsung heroes. It reminds us how extraordinary the dialogue can be between an artist and an instrument—crafted out of human hands but borne of the materials of nature.

Somerville Movie Event

IFFBoston now has a year-long series of screenings around town, one of which is this coming Tuesday: Director John Dahl in attendance for Q&A after a screening of his film You Kill Me at the Kendall.

I’d go if I still lived there but I’m a New Yorkah now.

My New Job

…is here. Managing the Docs section.

These Kids Today!

A jackass dinosaur of a critic laments the rise of blogger-critics, as yet another extension of this debate.

His entire article has the tone of an crotchety old man indignant about becoming old and useless. Why do old people always do this? I really hope I have better sense when I’m an old crone.

I’ll let Chuck and his commenters do the more eloquent dismantling.

Sofia and Kirsten

Great critique of Sofia Coppola in Bright Lights:

“There’s no doubt that Coppola creates a very rarefied mood, in which unusual music is matched with a specific era of design. Even the last shot, with the palace thrown into disarray, is an album cover. But is this the work of a director with vision, or a good stylist? Coppola has made a career out of mix-ups that sound interesting conceptually — Japan and ennui, royalty and pop — but is there anything beyond the excitement of the initial disconnect? She invents themes which seem intriguing on a production level, but these are rarely followed through, and in my opinion, don’t add up to a film. Marie Antoinette is a less frustrating film than Lost in Translation (2003), in that frivolity is its actual subject, but both movies are odes to pop set against blurry backgrounds. Each film has a mysterious or unexpected setting, with a precedent in music videos. However, in Lost in Translation, Coppola isn’t much interested in Japan, other than as a stylist’s backdrop. The Japanese exist only to inspire deadpan reaction shots from Bill Murray — but as Murray showed in Groundhog Day (1993), one doesn’t need to go to Japan to get a sea of unresponsive faces. Japan merely provides a color scheme, and an opportunity to take neon stills, in the way that a blue-screen Tokyo might be used in a fashion shoot. Like the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, its ceremonies are viewed ironically, by a privileged figure. …Marie Antoinette makes us long for the smashed palace at the end: something to break through its stylish sensibility. What the film needed was a performance which exposed self-involvement, while letting us feel immersed and attracted by it.”

The article also lauds Kirsten Dunst, and I may have to revise somewhat my opinion of her as an idiot:

“Dunst felt Gwyneth Paltrow’s interpretation of Sylvia Plath was incorrect. According to her, Sylvia (2003) failed because Plath was “a girl who wanted to hurt. She wanted to feel terrible…I felt like, in [Paltrow’s performance], it was more like, ‘I’m the victim!’ It should have been more that she liked to create all this shit in her head. She was crazier.”

via Greencine

Canadian Hair-Splitting

An attempt to define a Canadian Cinema.

“True Hollywood Canadians, by contrast, have a Canadian identity only in their invisibility. They are visible, that is, only for Canadians intent on claiming them as their own, alert to hidden signs of those actors’ Canadianness or exercised at the lack of any such signs.”

“Canada is the essence of not being. Not English, not American. It is the mathematic of not being.” — Mike Myers

Back to New York

My circular tour of the East Coast continues: the DC leg is over and NYC beckons again, this time with a job. A good job. A film job. The job I wanted. More soon.

Film Blogger Shitstorm

I’ve been trying to decide for a few days whether to acknowledge this, but it’s getting so big now that I suppose I have to, if for no other reason than to greet the loads of new visitors I am now getting. A blogger made a strange complaint about my Hannah Takes the Stairs post, which I dismissed at the time as quackery. He complained that my post did not contain plot summary and was not a ‘traditional’ review. Something I agree with and do not apologize for, and further if anyone is looking for that they should leave now because you’ll never find it here. I didn’t go to grad school to write movie capsules. And I didn’t start a blog to write newspaper reviews. But then a blogger who should know better picked up the cause and, clearly without reading my original Hannah post, wrote a post fretting over the effect on small, indie films of “inexperienced” bloggers who “might not be qualified” to write about film. This was then picked up again and again and again by bloggers–film bloggers love to write about film blogging, you see, so it’s spreading like wildfire.

So, the original blogger who started it all with his complaint that I don’t water down my posts apologized here and here for making my blog a footnote in a debate about internet quacks bringing down indie film. They say any publicity is good publicity, but in this case I’d happily give up all the new visitors and disagree.

As for the debate itself, or rather the fears of filmmakers that film-morons with blogs now have global power to sink their films with their incoherent rants, I think it’s a non-issue. Any blogger’s writing will quickly reveal itself to be a waste of time or not. If you are a moron maybe you’ll take a moron’s word to heart, but if that’s the case you likely aren’t going to like that indie film anyway.

I Plan to Buy This Book

Filmmaker Miranda July has gone back to fiction-writing and published a new book of short stories. Some people are turned off by her ‘preciousness,’ and I admit she walks a very very very fine line with it, but I agree 100% with this reviewer’s thoughts on her:

“Ms. July is graced with an unabashed love for the basic humanity of her characters. She’s a true anomaly in that she’s able to recognize the fucked-up underbelly of the culture while still having faith in that culture’s ability to survive and, however impossibly, achieve a few moments of shattering beauty.”

And she has a cute hyperlinked promo site for the book, in keeping with her preciousness.

UPDATE: I just looked at her promo site again, she is so fucking cute. 

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