Monday, September 3, 2007

No place like Heima


I have started the process of settling into my new home of Northampton, MA. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a rural part of western Massachusetts, home to Smith College and part of the Five Colleges area. While it boasts a thriving town center and, thankfully, two art cinemas and many independent bookstores (what more does one ask for?) I am still surprised at my homesickness for Boston, where I lived for 16 years. Given that many other students in my cohort are from much more far-flung parts of the country (and the world), I really shouldn’t complain.

However, it does make me re-consider ideas of home. Is physical place so important, or the memories we have of that particular place? Is home simply the place where you grew up? Or where your parents live? And what happens when someone else lives in “your” house, or your parents are no longer living? What if your home has been destroyed or transformed by civil war? What if your home is a variation of what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community?”

I have found a connection between these ideas and my latest cinematic obsession. Recently, a friend suggested I go see I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone when it comes to Boston later this month, and thus turned me on to the films of Tsai Ming-Liang. This unadulterated longing for home shows up in all three Tsai films I’ve seen so far: Vive L’Amour, Goodbye Dragon Inn, and What Time is it There? These films, which use absurd minimalism in order to emphasize loneliness and the impossibilities of real human connection, do so by emphasizing placelessness and transience. Characters experience dislocation even in their own homes, neighborhoods, and even in their own skin. In Vive L’Amour, three characters are connected by their choice of an abandoned high-rise apartment as a means of escape from the rest of the world; yet, it does not provide them with sanctuary that they hope for. What Time Is It There? suggests home is just a physical stand-in for the home we each experience in a relationship with another person, and three people— one in Paris, two in Taipei—desperately seek it out among the living and the dead. And Goodbye Dragon Inn, perhaps the most light-hearted of these three melancholy films, paints the movie-house as a home recognized too late as such for those who watch (or not) the theater's final screening. I'm hoping to tackle these ideas in more detail in a longer post (perhaps after I have seen all of Tsai’s films).

In the meantime, a clarification: Heima is the Icelandic term for “at home”, and the name of a new Sigur Ros documentary which I can't wait to see, featuring beautiful images (such as the one above) of the band’s native Iceland. You can view the trailer here .

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thursday Night Procrastination Links

I’ve been driven to distraction lately, trying to pack and organize for a move to another part of the state. It’s frightening and exhilarating at the same time. I really shouldn’t be spending any time on the internet, but I wanted to check in and let folks know that I will try to keep this blog going, if it kills me, from my new western Massachusetts home of Northampton (also home to Sonic Youth!). A few things I wanted to mention:

-I’ve been following the Mumblecore movement, a series of films by filmmakers who highlight the inarticulateness of 20-somethings and their awkward navigations through relationships. Here’s the latest interview with Andrew Bujalski, who just wrapped his newest lo-fi project in Austin. Unfortunately, as of yet there's very little info about the new film, besides from it being similar to his other films. And Jo Swanberg’s earlier film, LOL, is released on DVD on August 28 by Benten Films, a new venture run by Filmbrain (Andrew Grant) and Aaron Hillis.

-Every day this summer I’ve said I’m going to become a vegetarian; it just hasn’t happened yet. Not sure when (or if) it will. But, I now pay more attention to where my food comes from, which is often quite disturbing. Check out this video about the fuel costs associated with getting "fresh" vegetables to your doorstep. Not a cinematic wonder, but filled with great factoids that make you think twice about the travel costs of our food.

-Turns out Boston is a the bloggiest….who knew? New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where no one ever turns off their laptop.

-I haven’t been very happy with the Boston Film Festival in recent years, but perhaps this year’s Fest will get a jumpstart from former Mass. Film Office Director Robin Dawson. Fest happens Sept 14-21. In other fest news, tomorrow is the deadline for entries to the Boston Irish Film Festival, happening November 8-11 at the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive.

-This summer, many bloggers have obsessed over the validity of film lists, such as the AFI list and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists' list. Here’s a couple lists that further prove my point about the consumption of sex in American film. I am hoping to write more extensively about this obsession with lists and the "fragmenting" of sexuality in American cinema, but if you don’t care to think about sex scenes theoretically, well, as you wish:

-Gratuitous Male Nudity
-50 Greatest Sex Scenes in Cinema

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Let's All Go to the Drive-In!


To cap off the summer, my Movie Meetup Group is organizing a trip to the Mendon, MA drive-in at the end of August. I won’t be going as I move to Northampton the following morning, but I have been thinking about thinking about how and why people get so excited at the idea of this nostalgic pastime.

I don’t remember attending the drive-in as an adult, only as a kid and into my teen years. The attraction for the drive-in when you are nine is staying up really really late, walking around in public in your pajamas (well, to the concession stand, anyway), and the endless stream of entertainment just outside your window. Films I saw at the drive-in including Disney flicks like Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World. (I think there were lots of Kurt Russell retrospectives.) Of course, this is also where I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and the very first installment of Star Wars. Up through the '70s, you had to drive up to a pole with a speaker on it to listen; into the '80s you learned to turn on an AM radio station in your car, and this was was considered high tech at the time.

Although the drive-in was around as early as the 1930s, their numbers (and size) exploded in the ‘50s as there was a need for developing entertainment for the newly discovered Youth Market. It wasn’t long before these hot spots were dubbed “passion pits.” My parents, keenly aware of this more salacious aspect of the drive-in, did not allow me to go there as a teenager—at least not with boys (car + boy + Catholic parents = stay home).

Today, numbers of drive-ins have dwindled to about 400 in the U.S, but that hasn’t stopped many folks from attending or even creating their own. Since 2002, there’s a DIY aesthetic to this outdoor moviegoing phenomenon, which includes the Santa Cruz guerrilla drive in, which hopes to "reclaim public space," and just celebrated a five-year anniversary, and MobMov, another guerrilla "mobile movie" movement group with members all over the world (thanks to TamaLeaver for the link). Of course, it makes sense that there should be an environmentally friendly version, and some have called for pedestrian-only or bike-only "drive-ins."

I guess I’d like to end this post by asking folks what their memories are of the drive-in, what they saw, and what really makes them so appealing today. If you never went to a drive-in as a kid/teen, would you go now? Does this make the moviegoing experience a more communal, shared one, rather than catching a flick at the multiplex? And does the movie even matter?

More info on drive-ins:
-A site dedicated to drive-ins, and here's another.
-Ross Melnick's great Cinema Treasures site lets you search for theaters and has an exhaustive, historical list of American drive-ins that are open and closed.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Lady Chatterley



Recently, I have taken up watching a lot more French cinema. This isn’t my area of scholarly expertise (I'm starting to wonder if I really have one), but a new fascination that has developed over the past year.

Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (France, 2006) is adapted not solely from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but from a second published draft, John Thomas and Lady Jane. What’s notable about this filmic adaptation is that it is the first directed by a woman. Perhaps this knowledge affected my experience of this film, which is more about pleasure and sensuality than about the more narrowly framed ideas people have about sexuality and infidelity, but this also brings up questions about audience identification, which I don’t really have time to address here.

Lady Chatterley goes against many of the expectations one would have about a film that charts the adulterous affair of a bored Lady (Marina Hands) with the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch) on her estate, a form of escape from a loveless marriage to a wheelchair bound aristocrat, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot). The film clocks in at nearly three hours, and the first 45 minutes or so include almost no dialogue, no sex, but instead scenes of a woman waking up to her natural surroundings as if for the first time. It helps that the cinematography (by Julien Hirsch) is stunning, with Hands always central and striking against the woodland landscape in various seasons.

Also refreshing is the almost complete lack of conflict that arises from the affair itself. Not once do these lovers seem scared they will get caught; there appears to be no need for jealousy, resentment, or regret; even the threat of pregnancy does not appear to pose problems. The conflict of class is alluded to infrequently; when Lady Chatterley asks her husband about socialism, he laughs at her, and tells her to think about how she interacts with her servants. Class is an issue the gamekeeper brings up, but one that his Lady frequently dismisses as inconsequential.

At times, Ferran may focus nearly ten minutes on the miracle of Lady Chatterley’s legs sans stockings, a pair of hands, or the back of a neck. This minimal and more pensive approach is its strength and not its weakness; while some critics take issue with the lack of animal-like desire of Lady Chatterley and Parkin’s couplings (perhaps these folks are conditioned by how sex is rendered in American cinema?), Ferran understands that desire first develops via imagination and fantasy in the mind, and this leisurely gaze, or cinematic foreplay, will ultimately lead to consummation (six times). The Lady’s pleasure is central, since this story is more about her than her lover, and is not complicated by the ideas of Love until the film is nearly over. Ferran’s feminist interpretation of the Lawrence story does take its liberties, but these are made essentially to illuminate Constance Chatterley as an early modern woman, stripping away a lot of dialogue to let images and bodies speak for themselves.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eight Things...

Chuck tagged me a few days ago for the Eight Things meme. Since I need to find some way to jumpstart my blog again, I’ll reveal some facts (uh, maybe more like trivia?) about myself. But first, here are the required rules:


Rules:

1.
We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.

2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

3. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules.

4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and that they should read your blog.



The Eight:

1. I went to college hoping to become a journalist. I met Al Gore and heard folks like Gary Hart and Paul Simon speak, but left journalism because I wasn’t interested in “complicated” political issues. Instead, I became an English major but decided teaching wasn't for me, because I was too scared to speak in front of people. Yet, I’ve been teaching for four years, and in the fall I’m going to UMass-Amherst for a PhD in Communication, where I’ll probably focus on political filmmakers and socially-conscious films. Go figure.

2. I don’t remember my very first trip to the movies, but I remember that I absolutely adored Freaky Friday (1976).

3. Thanks to David Byrne Radio, I have been listening to a lot of Icelandic music lately. In particular, this includes Sigur Ros (of course), Gus Gus, Kate Havnevik (oops, she’s Norwegian), Benni Hemm Hemm, and Kimono.

4. I don’t care how brilliant people think it is, I just can’t stand The Piano.

5. Since I rarely find a film companion with a compatible level of film snobbery, I often prefer to go to the movies alone. If you think Tarantino is pretentious and Little Children was vastly overrated, then maybe I'll let you tag along.


6. While working at the customer service desk at a bank in Cambridge, I helped a customer with a problem. Foolishly, I did not know who he was. The very next day, I learned that this man was the director of A Brief History of Time, a film that was opening the Boston Film Festival. This is how I unwittingly met Errol Morris.


7. Growing up, my family visited the Atlantic Ocean every summer. The ocean is one of my favorite places; I don’t think I could ever live in a land-locked state.

8. Even though I am left-handed, I play guitar right-handed. I learned to pick out chords on tunes like Puff the Magic Dragon, Blowin’ in the Wind, and Knock Three Times (yes, the Tony Orlando and Dawn song).

Okay. Enough silliness. The folks I’m going to tag for this are mostly folks I follow on twitter, or those who left initial comments on my blog when it first went up. I don't know if folks will want to participate, but I'm just trying to follow the rules! So, the following bloggers are "it":
Karina, Agnes, Cynthia, Baratunde, Amit, Ted, kroosh, and Nick.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Lazy Lunchtime Links

Just a few links I don't want to forget, regarding some of my favorite indie filmmakers:


The Criterion collection will release Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Night on Earth in September. Don't expect director commentary on either DVD set (Jarmusch doesn't want to tell you what he's trying to do in his films) but Stranger includes his rarely seen first film Permanent Vacation.

John Sayles feature film, The Honeydrippers, will be released later this year; here's a clip of the band featured in film, playing a gig in NYC.

Jem Cohen's amazing film Chain will be on The Sundance Channel for several dates in July.

Monday, July 2, 2007

In Between Days

This weekend I caught the only area screening of So Yong Kim’s In Between Days at the Harvard Film Archive. This is Kim’s first feature (from 2006), and while lauded on the festival circuit, it spent so much time languishing for lack of a distributor that it appeared on indiewire’s favorite undistributed films list. (It’s been picked up by Kino International).

Inspired by the Korean-American filmmaker’s childhood in an L.A. suburb, the film centers on young teenager Aimee (Jiseon Kim), a recent immigrant to an unknown North American city with halting English language skills and her all consuming friendship and crush on Tran (Taegu Andy Kang). This scenario allows the filmmaker to address the social awkwardness of adolescence but also to capture the particulars of the Asian-American experience, and for the most part Kim gracefully succeeds at both endeavors.

Narratives of teen troubles are often riddled with clich├ęs, but Kim avoids many of these with a spare narrative visual style and camerawork that closely and almost claustrophobically follows Aimie as she goes through her daily details— trudging across hard-packed snow, hanging out on a highway overpass, and dreaming in bed while waiting for Tran to call (many critics as well as my film companion on Saturday pointed out that this appears to be a Dardennian influence, linking this film with 1999's Rosetta). The hand-held camera work also has the effect of disorienting the audience (where are we, anyway?), but this further demonstrates the self-centeredness of the teen years, when you’re tightly focused on your own circle of friends and the rest of the world doesn’t need to exist.

The minimal dialogue between Aimie and Tran reflects their inability to communicate, as they avoid what they want to say and instead state the exact opposite of what they mean-- resulting in a type of emotional protection that ultimately only works in the short term. Tentative steps forward often require some steps backward. Each move and comment, though small, is calculated, measured, so as not to provide the other with the upper hand. When Aimie’s attachment to Tran as crush, friend and cultural crutch is threatened by an Americanized Korean girl, Michelle, Aimie counters this by remaining ambiguous about her relationship with her friend Steve, and makes Tran beg when he needs a place to stay one night. Remaining cool and detached is always important, as when Aimie decides to sacrifice a much-needed English class in order to afford to buy a bracelet for Tran, later explaining it’s just something she casually saw and picked up for him.

Although Aimie’s pain is easily understood through the film's countless closeups, So Yong Kim sometimes feels the need to hammer home this point in more familiar and banal forms. Inserted throughout the film are voiceovers of Aimie’s “letters” to her absent father: a slow, bored whine juxtaposed with still shots of industrial desolation. These stills, while beautiful, are overwrought, as if the film needed to include the requisite blame on a parent for pain or neglect. Although possibly intended to point out the difficulties of the immigrant experience, and as the reason for her dependence on Tran, these sequences are a strange contrast to Aimie’s otherwise inarticulate nature. Also problematic here is Aimie’s mother, who may be physically present but is unable to make any real emotional connection to her daughter.

However, since I can identify with the plight and pain of being a teenage girl, I forgave a lot of the film’s missteps, and appreciated the film’s emphasis on isolation and its avoidance of traditional structure. Although I don’t have a romanticized vision of the director and this film, as some critics do, In Between Days is a worthy and often fresh approach to addressing both assimilation and the distinctly female experience of adolescence.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

TGIF Links

I've been away for a couple weeks, spending time looking for and finding a part-time job and making some big decisions about grad school in the fall. There's still a long to-do list that I should pay attention to, but I won't bore folks here with the quotidian stuff. Instead:

-via Mashable, there are rumors that Amazon will buy Netflix. Amazon announced recently it was going to enter the music downloading business, so perhaps they want to try their hand at film distribution and downloading (Netflix allows folks to stream films online, but does not have a comprehensive download service). Not sure how this would affect Netflix' Red Envelope division, which last year acquired the distribution rights to 90 films.

-Girish has a fun post on favorite '90s films based on lists found elsewhere in cyber-filmspace. Lots of foreign films I'd forgotten about, and his post reminds me that I must re-visit the films of Claire Denis (90's faves Beau Travail, U.S. Go Home), including her love affair with Paris Vendredi Soir.


Also: James Urbaniak, aka Simon Grim (of Henry Fool and Fay Grim fame) has a entertaining diary over at livejournal. His June 5th post: which member of the Bush administration most closely resembles Smithers?

And via Pop Candy, visit pastecultureclub.com for a podcast of the Top 15 Rock Screams. Good times...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Silverdocs and "Filmanthropy"

Just a quick post about Silverdocs, which takes place June 12-17. I’ll be attending for the first time and look forward to seeing several films. I'm hoping to catch Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side; which focuses on U.S policies/practices of torture and interrogation and the death of an Aghani taxi driver; Please Vote for Me, about third graders practicing classroom democracy in China, and 14 Women, which follows female members of the U.S. Senate in 2006. I also want to see some short films by Jem Cohen and AJ Schnack’s much acclaimed Kurt Cobain About a Son, and if I can squeeze it in, the biographical doc Frank and Cindy.

I’m also looking forward to the International Documentary Conference and sessions on Filmanthropy, which will examine how nonprofit groups and philanthropists are turning to documentaries to raise awareness about key social issues. Filmanthropy is a term that originated with Nanking producer and AOL Exec Ted Leonsis, who is a keynote speaker at the conference. Although the connection between nonprofits/advocacy groups and documentary is nothing new, I’ve been paying close attention lately to wealthy philanthropists trying to promote social change through filmmaking: the most obvious example is Jeff Skoll’s for-profit Participant Productions, as well as the emergence of Ben Goldhirsch's Good, a media company which includes a print publication, a blog and creates and posts videos on youtube (A brief review of these can be found here.) While the films created through such "filmanthropists" can bring awareness to certain subjects (the best and most obvious example being An Inconvenient Truth), I’m wondering if this type of filmmaking will risk giving up on storytelling and craft to focus on fundraising, with a singular goal of asking viewers to make contributions and serving more as propaganda than anything else. I guess I’m taking a cynical view here, but I’m just not sure how this particular trend will shape documentary practices in the future.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Waitress

Adrienne Shelly's final film, Waitress (imdb) is getting plenty of rave reviews. Most of these reviews suggest it's cute and light, and seize the opportunity to use baking/food metaphors, describing it as " a little slice of heaven" and "warm, flaky fun ."

One of the primary reasons for its critical success is the spot-on performance of Keri Russell as Jenna, who's reluctantly pregnant and reluctantly married to dolt Earl (Jeremy Sisto), but happily baking pies at Joe's Pie Diner, set in a small Southern town, waiting tables alongside geeky Dawn (Shelly) and the somewhat neurotic Becky (Cheryl Hines). Russell exhibits equal skill with both comic and dramatic material, and it's obvious that Shelly's camera and sympathies are aligned with Jenna from the start.

The film's strengths also include some smart dialogue and deadpan timing, obviously the influence of the years that Shelly worked with Hal Hartley. (This is most evident with many of the exchanges between Jenna and her OB-GYN/man-on-the-side Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion) who in some spots seems to have studied the work of another Hartley collaborator, Martin Donovan.) Waitress does employ plenty of indie quirk, including Jenna's permagrin smile of bliss at one point and the arrival of Ogie (Eddie Jemison) as a Pee-Wee lookalike love interest for Dawn. But unlike some recent films that simply drown in this "quirk" (including Little Miss Sunshine, Thumbsucker, and although I haven't seen it yet, here's the same argument for Year of the Dog), Waitress doesn't need to rely on it because the film actually has a well-developed character to follow.

Pies are the central metaphor here and work as a barometer of what Jenna is feeling at any given time. It's a fun framing device, and it makes you wish they served some in the theater. Some pies are made with love and joy, while others are the fruits of anger and frustration (I Don't Want Earl's Baby Pie). However, Waitress sometimes stops the narrative in its tracks to interject Jenna visualizing these pies--and this sometimes introduces a jarring change in tone. While it achieves the intended comedic effect (you know she's in trouble when she suggests a pie with oatmeal and fruitcake carelessly mashed together), it also reminds us that the balance between romantic comedy and serious drama is sometimes tenuous, and that the film isn't exactly sure what it wants to be.

This contrast in tone occurs in other places. Scenes in the diner (in a nod to women everywhere, Shelly makes sure many important conversations occur in the diner's bathroom) were dramatic, often upbeat, showcasing the camaraderie among the women, and establishing them as fully defined. In contrast, scenes in Jenna's house are dark and depressing, as she's trapped in a marriage to a man that makes her promise to love him more than she'll love her baby, but usually acts like a baby himself. It's during the film's second act that Jenna contemplates the immorality of having an affair, and at this point we wonder how she will ever get out of this mess. Often, I wondered why the high-spirited Jenna didn't take more steps to remedy her situation.

Despite some of these missteps I enjoyed Waitress and hope that it finds a wide audience on its own merits, and not because of the sensationalized publicity garnered by Shelly's tragic death. I'm sure that's what Shelly would have wanted, too.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

No Longer Lurking...

I am late to the whole blogging thing. I can make a parade of excuses here, but instead I'll just emphasize that I've had a different kind of presence: I've been lurking. I say lurking to suggest that I've been fairly quiet in my blog browsing, only commenting infrequently (a type of reader I think most bloggers actually dislike-sorry, folks!). I've been reading and gathering and collecting and mentally synthesizing lots of fabulous information, mostly from film/media blogs, for a few years now.

I join the blogging community now with a couple goals in mind. First, it's a matter of self-discipline: since I'll be a doctoral student in Moving Image Studies at GSU in the fall, I need to develop a daily habit of writing and responding to media, rather than simply thinking about it. Second, I'm fascinated with reception studies, and how a film, TV show, or web site can have so many different responses.

Lately, there have been many discussions regarding how film bloggers, also known as cloggers, should anticipate that their posts will be considered reviews by readers and to write accordingly. However, I think the film blogging community's primary purpose is not to provide prescriptive film information for readers, but to promote those discussions filmgoers love to have after seeing a film, encouraging conversation, examination, and (for those of us who are also academics) serious critical analysis. That's why Cynthia Rockwell's post on Hannah Takes the Stairs was particularly insightful to me. I read it soon after I saw the film, and it detailed a reaction that was similar to my own. Aside from the controversy over how she should write film entries, her post and its related comments/links brought up many other ideas, particularly how film reception is sometimes divided along gender lines.

Ultimately, I would like to point out upfront that my writings on films and other media will often be reactions to what I've seen, not necessarily reviews, as I try to figure out why I'm responding to films in a certain way.

Stay tuned for an entry on Adrienne Shelly's Waitress, coming soon, as well as lists of some of my favorite blogs, books, etc.