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The voice, the look, and the gait are all critical to any performance of Quentin Crisp, of course. The walk, defiant but contained. John Hurt appears to not think twice about any of it. The full force of his intelligence goes not into mimicry but into the trap between performance and body that is Crisp. The pain -- physical and existential -- is real and the performance of feminine masculinity is both its catalyst and the defence against it. He becomes a self that is always exposed, so that no exposure can be done to him.

Instead making mimicry effortful Hurt leaves voice, gait and posture to being. This is the only way his body knows how to move, as Crisp. His eyes are glued to the sergeant as he jogs over, ready to be commanded, confronted, denigrated. It is thoughtless, wonderful, selfless, memorable. RIP.

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Meek's Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt) isn't too interested in telling you what's happened, what's happening, or what's going to happen. We join a group of pilgrims as they are already, under the advice of their guide Meek, too committed to a "shortcut" to the promised land in the west to turn back. Water drops lower in the barrels. Wagon axles break. Tensions rise. They keep walking. Meek keeps boasting. There is no certainty that they are not heading directly towards their ends.

And then halfway through they find, perhaps, a new guide to fresh water, perhaps, who may, perhaps, know more than Mr Meek, on account of being a local. Or he may also, perhaps, be leading them to their doom, on account of being tied up, held at gunpoint, and called a heathen; and also being subject to the continual violent expansion of settlers across the west.

Well, they don't know who to trust, and neither do we. But they've gone too far, and they gotta move in some direction. Call it optimism, exhaustion, instinct, luck, prejudice, foolishness. Faith. Not blind faith but an aware and alive faith with active investment in the absence of certainty, the ineluctable gap between the knowable and the unknowable, the impossibility of resolution. It is all too clear that it could all be for naught; and at the end waits death, or at least 100 minutes of wasted time.

As pilgrims, they may be quite used to the problem and effort of faith. They pick a man and a direction, and keep walking.

In wide unbroken shots they trudge through the desert and dry hills, skirts fluttering, guiding cattle, looking sad. There is a very strange and unconvincing hollowness to the endless amounts of doing and being that are done and been onscreen. The actors are obviously enduring something unfun, but they all of them except Rod Rondeaux (who creates mystery with ease and precision) and Will Paxton (whose stoic patience and inherent goodness are almost too much) appear to be playacting.

Michelle Williams as Emily is the main moral and intellectual ground upon which the problem of not-knowing plays out. Her round face, with its perfectly-manicured eyebrows and natural troubled pout, is all wrong for this thin harsh story. She is very carefully dirty. Her wide eyes fix on objects and people without appearing to process thoughts about them. Her best moment (for my money the most exciting and characterful moment in the movie) is simply her shooting and laboriously reloading a rifle -- loading shot, packing wadding, loading gunpowder -- that plays out for a full minute. Williams has obviously practiced and repracticed this action, and the urgency of the moment comes through in the familiarity and smoothness of her motions.

For some reason, walking and gesturing does not appear to be as familiar to these actors as shooting a 150-year-old gun or shaping a new axle out of a tree trunk. Bruce Greenwood as Meek is swamped by a ridiculous beard and fringed jacket and, denied any revealing closeups, appears to have forgotten how to move convincingly in long shot, awkward in his clothes. Costumes are important. One of the great pleasures of Westerns is watching actors use their hats to mess with their sightlines (Brokeback Mountain is an aria sung in hat-brims) and the three women in Meek's Cutoff are gifted with deep bonnets that function like horse blinkers, literally tunnelling their vision forwards; but nobody seems to realise how crucial this is thematically or practically.

With her aversion to closeups and her use of the 4:3 ratio Reichardt works almost as hard as her actors to keep us at a distance. The naturalism of Blauvelt's photography and the length of the shots encourage observation, looking at. She makes the labour visible, and withholds the emotion.

This cripples these actors, who are required to domesticate and naturalise the stark difference of time and place through repetitive doing; to give the film's mysteries a purpose, to live us into the struggle and effort of faith. And sure, you can hinge a movie's structure on the question of faith, but you gotta do the rest yourself. Faith will give you a direction but it will not do the walking for you. And it is in the doing -- which is the entirety of the action onscreen: walking, kneading bread dough, watching, walking, patting donkeys, running, gathering wood, knitting, walking -- where Meek's Cutoff cannot connect, cannot turn concrete action into the stuff that makes the faith meaningful.
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Don't think I can create any kind of thesis on this one and tbh it's fading kinda fast so some brief thoughts:

- Commits the unforgivable sin of being unable to photograph the gorgeous and talented Sterling K Brown with enough light and clarity to allow us to see the bottom half of his face. If The Wire can photograph dark-skinned, bearded men in that ugly-as-hell institutional lighting so can you. This was something I just cannot get past. I love this actor and wanted to see him ACT.

- Wonderful performances across the board but I particularly enjoyed watching John Travolta and David Schwimmer. Travolta's physicality is delightful and funny and pathetic and Schwimmer's arc held the true heart of the story for me, because I think it fumbled its other raison d'etres. Schwimmer's doleful eyes and gradually dawning horror were my favourite things to see on screen. Cuba was also stunningly pathetic and hateful and his vocal work was superb.

- I found the photographs of Simpson and Goldman that appeared at the end of the final episode in bad taste. These are the dead bodies that the this sensationalistic multi-million-dollar earner for FX is built on, so in that sense it is appropriate, but I don't think the series really cared too much about them.

- In fact I think this show was very confused about what it wanted to be. Realism, melodrama, naturalism, romance, thriller. The one thing it wasn't was nerdy or procedural, which might have saved it and pulled it away from sensationalism. It's not illuminating any fundamental truths about the OJ case, the justice system, or the media. I really, really wanted to feel Clarke and Darden's relationship in my soul but it developed so herky-jerky I didn't know where they were with each other from scene to scene. I don't feel like it carried Cochrane's story strongly enough to have his great moral victory -- an indictment of the racist LA Police -- counterpoint his simultaneous great moral loss -- the travesty of OJ's acquittal.

- Somehow, because she is an amazing actress, Paulson managed to find new ways to convey every time the trauma and surprise of the rug being pulled from under her. But still, the effort put into using dramatic irony to beat this woman back to the ground every time she staggered onto her feet felt sadistic and pointless.

- So of course these things happened, like her naked photos being published. But if part of the story is about the evil media and all the suckers watching -- if I were one of those thousands of viewers glued to the screen for months on end, speculating endlessly about her hair, and her mistakes, and the prosecution's mistakes -- if part of it is about problematising watching and what that does to the watchers, what does it mean then to watch this show? If I get to empathise with Clarke and her sob story and difficulties -- doesn't that let me off the hook? Aren't I now just the enlightened viewer of Quality Television? Great. So what's on next?
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Harvey is a nice light little movie, imperfectly made, with a major piece of miscasting (Sanderson) and some directorial stiffness (although Koster certainly succeeds where the '72 version fails). What it does have is Jimmy Stewart giving a wonderful performance in a very tricky role that blends melancholy and happiness so sweetly and unassumingly that even though the ending is a happy one I was left with a great mixed feeling of joy and sorrow.

Happy-Go-Lucky is the only other movie right now that I can think of that attempts something like Harvey -- a protagonist who is unceasingly cheery and NICE, at beginning and end of film -- but even H-G-L contains internal character conflict and unhappiness -- a journey. Elwood, in contrast, does not do the one thing that a protagonist is SUPPOSED to do, which is, change. He does not change at all. He is the catalyst for change in other peoples' lives, and he would be a very curious, tipsy void at the centre of the film if it were not for Jimmy Stewart.

Without an arc to play, Stewart instead plays to a reveal -- not the "Harvey is real" thing and certainly not the holy fool morality of the end, but the reveal in his centerpiece monologue outside of Charlie's bar, to Sanderson and Kelly, of his meeting with Harvey. Because we're way ahead of the other characters when it comes to wanting Elwood to stay Elwood and not be psychoanalysed or medicated into mundanity, to lose the thing that made him special, we're vested in seeing his "delusion" as something sweet and essentially harmless.

But in this monologue Stewart -- without ever ONCE tipping his hand, or playing to any melancholy -- reveals the depth of Elwood's potential sorrow, the emptiness and meaninglessness that is held at bay by Harvey, and the active choice he makes to be pleasant over smart (read: cynical or beholden to social pressure). He used to be able to dance; he doesn't dance any more, but he does make friends, and he does go out into the world.

I used to know a whole lot of dances. The, uh, flea hop, and--and the, what's the -- the black bottom, the varsity drag. I don't know, I just don't seem to have any time any more. I have so many things to do.

What is it you do, Mr Dowd?

Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars, and have a drink or two, and play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people, they turn toward mine, and they smile. And they're saying, we don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella. Harvey and I warm ourselves on all these golden moments.

Who would he be if he couldn't warm himself on these moments?

And it's this that sits under the rest of the film, and makes us love him so tremendously, when he's giving Dr Chumley such good advice, when he's at risk of being medicated, when it looks like Harvey might stay behind. You only want good things to happen to him -- not because he's so so pleasant, but because his pleasantness is a choice, and because his life was not so so pleasant, once, and the beauty in his soul and the generosity and forgiveness he brings to the world deserves return in kind.

What Stewart brings to this performance is the knowledge not simply that joy and sorrow exist on a continuum, and that we can't know the one without having known the other; but that a pure and perfect, lived-in joy is often tinged with sorrow, or grief. When I think of my loved ones -- when I turn inside and try to capture without thought the feeling they invoke in me, the love I feel is tinged with a kind of pain. That mixed feeling, that joy tinged with melancholy that makes the joy shine brighter, is what Stewart is playing, and is what I felt seeing him shamble through the gates, over the rise and into the sunset.
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Strange. I know so very little about you.

RICK (chuckles):
I know very little about you. Just the fact you had your teeth straightened.

But be serious, darling, you are in danger. You must leave Paris.

No no no, we must leave.

Yes, of course, we.

Now the train for Marseilles leaves at five o'clock. I'll pick you up at your hotel at four-thirty.

No, no, not at my hotel, I -- I have things to do in the city before I leave. I'll meet you at the station.

All right, at a quarter to five. Say, why don't we get married at Marseilles?

ILSA:, that--that's too far ahead to plan.

Yes, I guess it is a little too far ahead. Let's see, what about the engineer? Why can't he marry us on the train?

ILSA (voice shaking):
Oh, darling.

RICK (laughs):
Why not?

Bergman's hand gesture here slays me. I suspect she might actually be corpsing, but anyway, to hide her face from the camera is a genius move, along with that stunning voicework -- Ilsa is too overwhelmed by heartbreak to exist even for us.

Another thing: people didn't think Bogart had the chops to be a romantic lead before this. But he sets Rick up for a fall so perfectly -- you can tell it's love that keeps him buoyant in Paris (laughs), and you can believe he'd do anything as the embittered Rick of Casablanca.
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Ute Lemper is best known for her cabaret and Kurt Weill interpretations. She has a huge, throaty, theatrical voice, with tremendous range and an obvious delight in characterisation and irony. This song, Scope J, comes from an album called Punishing Kiss, of covers and songs written specially for her by contemporary artists such as Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Neil Hannon. As might be expected this is a very melodramatic album about breakups, whores, bars, Berlin, drinking, cobblestone streets, and murder.

And then at the end is Scope J. Most of the album is backed by The Divine Comedy and arranged by Jody Talbot. Most of the album is about concrete characters and familiar cabaret situations. But Scott Walker wrote Scope J, and Scott Walker arranged arranged Scope J. It contains a bizarre bridge in which she mutters Herbert Ponting's The Sleeping Bag. It is, very darkly, funny, and it is, unsurprisingly, Fucking Weird. It is the Scott Walker of Tilt and The Drift. Most reviews of Punishing Kiss singled it out either for high praise or for mystified what-the-fuckery.

Lemper, who is a "theatre uber alles" kind of gal, and loves Scott Walker for his theatricality, has confessed that even she doesn't know what this avant-garde piece exactly means. It was very difficult for her to perform, and a very internal song. A very still and chilly song in which sunlight glints off of snowbanks in the high tinkle of windchimes and violins scream about death.

Lemper has a huge range, and could convey a Walkerish, baritonish feel if she wanted -- like on The Drift's Jesse, perhaps. But she has the power and control to hit the clouds, competing with the violins and guitars without sounding in the least shrill. She sounds, frankly, like she's come from another realm.

What realm? With its references to Russia we are put not as much in mind of Ponting's Arctic but Tolstoy's snowblind Russia of Master and Man, in which "snow fell from above and at times rose up from below"; the kind of other-space on which meaning and objects either dissolve or overwhelm in their significance, and you come up hard against the limits of physical and metaphysical experience:

Vassily Andreich rushed after him, but the snow was so deep and the coats on him were so heavy that each leg sank over the knee, and, having gone no more than twenty steps, he got out of breath and stopped. "The woods, the wethers, the rent, the shop, the pot-houses, the house and barn with the iron roofs, the heir," he thought, "what will become of it all? What is this? It can't be!" flashed in his head. And for some reason he recalled the wind-tossed wormwood, which he had passed twice, and such terror came over him that he did not believe in the reality of what was happening to him. He thought: "Isn't it all a dream?" and wanted to wake up, but there was nowhere to wake up in. This was real snow that lashed him in the face, and poured over him, and felt cold on his right hand, the glove for which he had lost, and this was a real waste, in which he now remained alone, like that wormwood, awaiting an inevitable, speedy, and senseless death.

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All you gotta do to get me is have characters who can't look at each other but desperately want to. EMOTION! Great trick for an actor to pull off, to be hyperconscious of another person.

And of course...
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I wish I had more time this week to talk about Dog Day Afternoon, one of my favourite movies and surely one of the great American movies of the 70s, as self-contained as The Godfather is sprawling. It starts with the classic piano beat of Amoreena, a quick shot of Sonny's car tucked in in between dogs and billboards pointing out that for all of the police and drama, today's events are just one moment in the hustle and bustle of New York life, and will be just as quickly forgotten.

I wish I had time to talk more about the amazing sound design. Jesus Christ that awful telephone ring that drills down into your brain like a jackhammer; the clicks and clacks of ordely banking that are disrupted when Sonny makes his move; the pock of tennis balls through the opening tune; the chopper blades and engine that drown out the radio chatter; the hoarse cry of Attica man!; the retort of a shot that sends people screaming and fleeing; the obliterating scream of a jet engine.

I wish I had time to talk about how important queerness is to the plot without being some kind of prop for it, or the portrayal of the media, the greatness of every supporting character from Chris Sarandon and Penelope Allen right on down to the pizza delivery guy, or a thousand other things, including how prettily framed Pacino is in this movie, at the height of his wide-eyed beauty.

I wish I had time to rhapsodise about how precise and efficient and helpful Lumet's direction is, how it lays out the bank and its surrounds for us with clarity and hilarity. This skill seems to be essentially forgotten these days, but Lumet's direction in the bank is a marvel. The bank is a well-organised space that so perfectly set in our mind that a recent episode of Bob's Burgers, of all things, was able to recreate it, triggering instant recognition.

We never go big in the bank. The camera always sits at a natural height. The second we go outside it's all overheads and helicopters, all those barriers and the people that seep through them like molasses, those guns that can only with great effort be reholstered. Oh, the irony of that overkill because you know the smallness of what's going on inside -- two people are falling apart, sure, and that's a big deal, but the situation is so tiny.

Speaking of falling apart --
you got it man )

Check out more entries in the series here.
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This entry is my first go participating in Nathaniel R's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, and I'm sorry you guys, I think I am going to go overboard because there are so many things I want to say about this amazing movie.

Somehow I never knew Singin' in the Rain was a comedy. The first time I watched it I started out at half attention, mostly missing the homage/parody of the movie star arrivals, as well as some great hammy acting by Kelly, who spends so much of the movie throwing his giant vaudville smile out there. I missed the way he strides in, tooth-first, setting Don up as 99% performance; that bitchin strut is a definite contender for Best Gif.

Then it went and punched me in the face with a great series of gags, contrasting image with voiceover:

Our parents' society friends; rigorous musical training at the conservatory of fine arts; the finest symphonic halls; sunny California.

I'm a sucker for that kind of thing. Instant love. But it's all about the voiceover and the dancing. Can't Best Shot that. Can't even Best Gif that.

Always dignity. )

Black Swan

Jan. 25th, 2011 01:32 am
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I take back what I said about Black Swan being old-school Hollywood camp. The excess is there, yes, the big female performances, the heavy-handed symbolism, the archetypes -- stage mother, aging actress, temptress, seducer/abuser.

But it's too interior a film to be camp in that sense. These figures are not unruly women, they're categories filtered through a mind under increasing strain. Watching it again I see how completely Nina's psychotic break overwhelms and dictates the movie. Cracks appear early, before the pressure really starts to mount. The paintings move the first time you see them. Her shadow haunts her in the subway (embodied and reflected) before she even hears they'll be doing Swan Lake.

cut for length and spoilers )
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well last year was meant to be a year of writing, but I have never been able to get into the habit when it actually means something; I need to learn how to hold myself accountable but how do you hold yourself to account when you find yourself so boring?

The two times I managed to post with any vigour were attempts to understand the frustrating mess of disappointments that is Inception and purge the overwhelming push-pull of Broderskab's narrative conceit and dense sensuality. Beginning with Live Free or Twihard, I also had a series of enjoyable conversations over in the threads of the AV Club Supernatural reviews.

Nevertheless I must, I must write! I must watch and think and read and think and write in proportion or else I will get kicked out of uni, and then the dear knows what I will do.

2010 ended up being about movies. I saw more non-English language movies than I usually do, I checked out some of the classics, and I had a bit of a fitful nostalgic trip down Disney lane (Pocahontas is skeevier than I remembered even though Miss P herself remains the hottest of all the Disney girls, and Sleeping Beauty even more perfect than I remembered). It turns out I can recite and sing the entirety of Robin Hood along with the movie. Hey, if this academia gig don't work out, maybe I can take that on the road!

Of all the movies I saw for the first time this year there were quite a few that stick in the memory.

movies, yo )

Thus ceaseth the opinions. FOR NOW! Hopefully.
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So Brotherhood (Brodeskab) you guys, I don't even know where to start with this movie.

I could start with the heartwarming scene where the two attractive white guys bond over the creation of awful, just simply vile racist Neo-Nazi propaganda and proceed to distribute it with the sweet, guitar-accompanied abandon that sees young lovers in other movies frolicking in autumnal drifts.

I could start by comparing it to Brokeback Mountain and Einaym Pkuhot, two other recent, stunningly acted movies about the intense homoeroticism of a repressive, masculinist culture.

Or I could start with David Dencik.

Let me start with David Dencik. )

Man, I am so glad to purge my thoughts on this, I haven't been able to think about anything else for a whole day now.