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We went west, camping. This was the second time. The first time we went east, down the Great Ocean Road, up into the highlands, out into the hay plains. We were in the middle of breaking up. She was very sad, and I was very remote.

This time was a couple of years later. We were back together. She was still sad; or sad again. Newly, desperately sad, starting after we'd made the plans. She didn't want to go. I drove us out of town with a decided optimism as firm-set and grasped-at as the road.

Our first night was in Port Augusta, only three and a half hours from home. We had forgotten how to raise a tent. There was no grass, just hard red rocky dirt. We argued, frustrated and feeling foolish, bending the tent pegs, groundsheet flapping. It was the windiest night in years, they said. The sky was black.

We had brought a laptop and paid extra for power, because not to have access to some of our rituals and routines of comfort would have been a dealbreaker, but in the end she didn't want to watch anything. The tent was rattling and it was cold. Her brain was too loud. She put her headphones on. It was still early. I thought that tomorrow she would ask to go home.

I put on Bill Cunningham New York with an optimism shading more into the desperate and foreboding. After a few minutes, she took off her headphones, and I started it again.

She likes gentle people. She likes people who endure, and smile, and be themselves, and have love to spare. People who care for others, who are creative in a way that doesn't register to her as pretentious. Anyone over the age of seventy-five melts her. She swooned for Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham revolutionised celebrity photography and fashion photography, sharp and focussed as a laser when it came to capturing how the people of New York wore and lived their clothes. He was an eccentric who lived with eccentrics, if by eccentric you mean someone who does not follow the typical patterns and aesthetics of modern life. He had no partner. He was a mystery even to colleagues and friends who had known him for decades. He was small, and by the time of the documentary gaining a geriatric bend and weariness and medical regime, but he was still quick-witted and surprisingly agile when his photography called for it. He wore the same clothes every day. He rode his bicycle (make that bicycles: they had been stolen by the dozens) everywhere he needed to go. He had a boyhood and a past he didn't like to talk about. He didn't like to talk about himself, or even really his driving purpose in life. He wanted to hold the camera, and point it out, towards the thousands of people he saw daily, in the offices of the New York Times, in the ballroom parties and galas of the elite, in the crowds on the street.

In Bill Cunningham New York he is obviously uncomfortable being inside the frame instead of outside of it, except for those times when he forgets himself in his work, running out into the road to capture a pattern or shape or texture as it strolls past. But he smiles and jokes and puts up with the reversal, maintaining scepticism that he himself and his approach to his calling could be of interest, could speak as loudly about humanity as the photographs he took.

He thought himself boring, and he wasn't interested in boring people, people who wore the right clothes the right way, the most expensive dress. He was interested in people who were being themselves, who brought their personality to bear on their material lives, whose eyes could transform the ordinary, who appeared to show us that just being alive and being creatively yourself was the first and most fundamental step.

This was, of course, a quaint and terrifically endearing blind spot. We were both in love with him by the five-minute-mark, blown far away from the wind and the worry and the sadness. I've always been grateful to him for that. It turned out to be a good holiday.

Last month, we happened to watch the documentary Iris, about another New York fashion eccentric Iris Apfel, also up there in age. Bill appeared, inevitably, in this documentary too; and so afterwards we rewatched Bill Cunningham New York (realising at that point that Iris Apfel also featured in this film), and were gladdened and warmed by his quick quiet spirit all over again.

He passed away yesterday at the age of 87.

"Who will we dress for now?" ask the fashionistas and moguls of New York: being snapped by Bill at a party was never guaranteed or to be taken for granted, and to impress him was often the goal. He did not want to sit in the front rows of the fashion shows, preferring to hear the unguarded chatter of those relegated to the back. His days mostly were spent in the streets, looking for people, for art.

To have an eye that judges without being judgemental; to be gentle; to be honest; to be loyal; to be unimpressed by status; to work hard; to know truthfully one's own talent, and passion, and to pursue it with a firm hand but no overriding ego; to refuse money for money's sake; to be alive to the world; to have a sense of history; to value the unconventional; to know there is difficulty and sorrow and still search for beauty; to be generous with smiles and genuine with praise. In Bill Cunningham New York he seems to touch the lives of everyone in the city, just by being there to witness them. It's a sorrow to lose a person like that.

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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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Plenty (PLENTY) of pictures below, but first a small digression on the point of design. This is a movie I saw early and often. Its pictures and sounds are in my bones. It's gorgeous, captivating, elemental; the second weirdest movie in the entire Disney animated canon, and one of the most phenomenally beautiful movies ever made. And more than any other Disney animated picture it is driven by its design in a way that echoes the slightly displaced and eerie, otherworldly and familiar, quality of a good fairytale myth. (And that's not even touching on its music, its character design, its sound design, and its voice acting, which deserve a post of their own).



Lady and the Tramp had been a financial success and Disney, whose boundary-pushing and adventurous Fantasia was over a decade in the past, wanted to pull together something just as astounding and even more beautiful, a moving illustration, a holistic artistic achievement as adventurous and revolutionary as Fantasia, but that also harkened back to the princess narratives of his early successes. And, fuck it, he thought. He'd tried widescreen with Lady and the Tramp and it worked out. Why not film in Super Technirama this time, printing in 70mm and requiring his artists work on bigger canvases, with more detail.

Mary Blair was one of Disney's favourite artists, who often contributed conceptual art to his movies and shorts in the 40s and 50s. Her art was angular, graphic and abstracted -- her work for the Cinderella story book is vastly different to the screen version. Her style is obvious in Once Upon a Wintertime, in the vivacious, bold and friendly backgrounds (the character design, unfortunately, departs starkly from her aesthetic, and is far less successful), and the angular horses (a clear predecessor of Sleeping Beauty's horses).

Disney wanted something as adventurous and modern and design-driven as her work but as iconic and ageless as The Hunt of the Unicorn. At the same time, Disney was distracted by his other dream project, building Disneyland. So, he delegated.

Disney gave Eyvind Earl, a tremendously talented background artist obsessed with "infinite detail within detail," an unusual amount of control over the look of the film -- enough power even to override successful character animators like Marc Davis. You can get a look at Earl (and Marc Davis), in this delightfully stilted and earnest Disney short film shot during the making of Sleeping Beauty, which unfortunately I cannot embed but which is well worth a look.

Earl drew, design-wise, from several sources: the castles and strong vertical compositions of medieval gothic painting; the stiffness, flatness and narrative of medieval tapestries; the costuming, landscaping and regulation of medieval illumination, particularly duc de Barry's Book of Hours; and the detailed and delicate florals, the geometry and layered perspectives of 15th/16thC Persian miniatures.


Pliny, study, and landscape - Andrea di Firenze, 1457


Yusuf and Zulaiikha - Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, 1488

Also he decided to just go ahead and draw trees like a fucking weirdo, albeit with some precedent:


Early medieval landscape by an unkown miniaturist

Earl's great trick here was taking Charles Perrault's post-Renaissance/pre-Romantic Sleeping Beauty fable and giving the big middle finger to Renaissance perspectivalism and Romantic emotion. This is a simple story, with simple, stilted characters, with a known and unavoidable beginning, middle and end, and its princesses and fairytale rhythms are familiar; but its exteriors sometimes verge on the uncanny, with flat, skewed planes and multiple vanishing points, and its interiors are cavernous empty vaulted stone rooms or close and cluttered cottages and cages.

This is a stiff unyielding world of monarchy, betrothment, good and evil. A world in which a sixteen-year-old can grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her and have that mean something, because beauty has metaphysical, quantifiable weight, an ordered place in the universe. Prophecy is a natural fit for this kind of world, because everything is static, and everything is cyclical, and what is spoken must be done.

And yet prophecy too, as inevitable as it seems, has gaps that can be exploited and mitigated, with great effort. This is Earl's other great trick: to infuse all of his medieval-era influences with the brash angularity of modernism and mid-century graphic design, with bizarre disruptive interludes of bird cutouts swimming woozily in song, with negative-image lightning flashes, with scare cuts and zooms on gargoyles and Aurora's body, with the queasy colouring of Maleficent's castle and the pink/blue smoosh of Aurora's dress, with extreme high or low angles, with a climax that dissolves geography and space into a nightmare haze of fire and clashing teeth.


a break-your-phone number of caps )

Stateliness and grace; elegance and weight; terror and peace; modernity and timelessness; violence and sleep; prophecy and disruption; detail and expanse; order and chaos. These tensions, and the sheer impeccability and beauty of their execution, are what keeps Sleeping Beauty feeling so vital and unique, over fifty years after its (unceremonious and expensive) release. Indeed, that its weakest sequence is its abrupt and empty-feeling final minute shows how little-suited Sleeping Beauty is to soothing and resolving tension. It's too strange for that; there is too much alive in its images.
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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.




ELWOOD:
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.

KELLY:
What is it you do, Mr Dowd?

ELWOOD:
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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ILSA:
Strange. I know so very little about you.

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

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

RICK:
No no no, we must leave.

ILSA:
Yes, of course, we.

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

ILSA:
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.

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

ILSA:
Oh...no, that--that's too far ahead to plan.

RICK:
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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You were just doing your thing, looking forward to a good psychological drama. You'd heard a bit about this but the whole narrative's pretty over the top, right? Then wham! THIS IS TRUE in face-punching sans serif stuns your critical faculties and lets you know the score. You look it up on Wikipedia and wow, it does seem to have actually happened, and it was awful. Your heart starts to sink but it'll be okay, you've taken on tough movies before and ultimately, it is just a movie, it's not a big deal, and Dreama Walker is extremely pretty.

You can't see much with all those close-up details of the objects in the room but you can trust they mean something because the director wouldn't do it otherwise. It does get coy with framing and focus, but you know you couldn't handle that information anyway, it's too nasty.

It's too claustrophobic and greasy and exhausting, and when you start to question why someone would do something like that you remember the simple parameters laid out at the start -- busy day, bit of guilt, power imbalance and the answers come pretty easy. When there's an elision three-quarters of the way in you wake up a bit and ask, really? So you check Wikipedia and find out you have to go along with it -- this Really Did Happen.

But there comes a point where you have to say, this is enough. This is too disturbing and watching has become untenable. And it hears you, and it cares about you, so it steps back and gives you a long take in a car, sitting close on a gumshoe driving in to save the day. You take a deep breath and watch, and are glad to be reassured that the police are really just trying to help. After all, they work hard, they catch the bad guy and the assaulted woman gets protected and eventually sues. That's a good outcome.

The credits roll after some text reminds you again about how it was a true story. Sure it was unpleasant and you didn't like watching it; gosh, nobody would. It's not like you wanted to see Dreama Walker's boobs, at least never like this, but now you're down with this bit of the film conversation. And it's true, so these kind of stories need to be told, and you supported an indie movie in these tough economic times. The movie needs you, really.

It sure couldn't do it without you.
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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. )

Avengers

Apr. 28th, 2012 10:23 pm
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my primary take away from The Avengers is being impressed. Impressed at the quickness and cleverness of the extremely efficient script: Avengers would not have been the a hardest movie of the last year to write, but it would have been one of the hardest to write well, and it is written very well. Star Trek, the other recent ensemble-of-icons adaptation/reborquel, did a great job introducing characters with flair and giving everyone a hell yeah moment, with humour. Avengers does all this, but think of everything else it has to manage. It needs to generate equalities and equivalencies in status and power between 4 superheroes, some of whose set-up films were seen less than others, some of whom have less obvious roles and purposes in the oncoming conflict than others. It needs to (did it? I don't know Hawkeye and Black Widow from Adam but I assume they're important to the comics) incorporate two lesser, more human powers, who had seconds of honestly forgettable screentime in previous films, as major characters who can carry arcs. It needs to locate a strong organisational pivot around a character, Nick Fury, who has the built-in pull of an eyepatched SLJ, but who was really just previously just some guy that you saw if you were also interested in reading copyright and humane society disclaimers. The only place it really struggled structurally I'll put under the spoiler cut along with more general discussion.

Joss threw in a couple of neat camera tricks, mostly playing with reflections, which is not really thematically relevant but oh well, but mostly kept things pretty neutral, generally avoiding the standard chaos of present-day blockbuster action. Certainly other action directors could learn from the gorgeous Serenityesque floating shot that tracked the action of the major players in the climactic confrontation. Beautiful clarity!

I loved the way it moved the pieces around on the board, often delaying maximum superhero deployment. Robert Downey Jr was always genius casting for Iron Man, but imagine how distracting, how completely beamed-in-from-another-movie, that scenery-chewing, dominating, obnoxious charisma could have been. Instead they turned it into a plot point! In fact, a character arc! Instead of trying to force these characters together they split them off into interesting pairs, giving just about everyone at least two major relationships.

slightly spoilery for characterisation, minor plot points )

Mostly though, very impressed, with its visual and verbal wit, its care and efficiency, its devotion to examining interpersonal and group relationships, and its cameo appearance of Enver Gjokaj. Never change Joss.

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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All Christopher Nolan's movies are about about reality, self-deception and our shadow-selves. Some of them are pretty great: Memento was just about a perfect movie, lean and purposeful with a conceit that doesn't feel like the joke's on you. As the years have passed his stuff has become more bloated, substituted thought and meaning for glossy cleverness. The more I think about The Dark Knight the more I resent how thin that patina of philosophical depth was, how little that movie had to offer on the nature of myth (which wouldn't be a problem except that's what the thing claims to be about).

I read as little about Inception as I could but I couldn't help seeing the effusive praise. I got pretty excited, and here are a whole bunch of words about how that excitement was justified. Just kidding! I need to try to break down the ways this movie failed because this thing could have been, and should have been, so much better.

Spoilers! )

ARF

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