Over at the Auteur's Notebook, I outline my theory as to why the crazy 1970 Czech fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an exemplary Halloween film. Whatever scary movies you're watching tonight, have a blast.
If I were a regular reader of this blog rather than its writer, about now I'd be wondering what's with the infrequent posting, not to mention its author's sudden disinclination to engage anything beyond his own book and DVD libraries. Well. I'm so glad I asked. First off, there is the matter of my being busy with other stuff. Some of it you can see at new and improved The Auteur's Notebook right now and later today. But there have been a few sudden deadlines popping up. I just finished a profile of Greg Mottola for the DGA Quarterly—a last-minute assignment that needed a quick turnaround and came out pretty well, I think. I'm working on a holiday movies piece for a Website To Be Named Later. And then there's a reasonably big writing project of which I can say no more, but will (I hope) prove an item worthy of much mirth early in the new year.
So there's that, and to be perfectly frank, a bit of season-change funk going on as well. But the main reason I'm more likely, on this page, to juxtapose Hans-Jurgen Syberberg with Philip K. Dick rather than speculate on whether Focus Features is doing sufficient work in marketing Milk is because the latter topic—to name merely one such, as the awards season looms—just bores the living fuck out of me.
I kind of figured that once I no longer had any real professional obligation to care about awards, I would pretty much stop caring about them, at least until someone offered me a fair amount of pirate gold to do so again. But even I'm surprised at just how much I've stopped caring since I left Premiere.com. Awards, awards season, awards movies—mention such things to me and my head echoes with the great Casey Kasem's immortal adage: "These guys are from England, and who gives a shit?"
Don't get me wrong: I'm looking forward to seeing Milk. And I've already seen one yet-to-be-released picture with considerable awards buzz, which I promised not to write about until it was okay to write about it. (As stuff is leaking about it already, I'm gonna look into the situation later today.) And I'm looking forward to discussing them. As movies. But I'm certainly not gonna waste my beautiful mind sitting around with my thumb up my ass wondering aloud why Movie X was screened for critics in CIty Y but not for critics on the West Coast and why so-and-so isn't doing more to counter such-and-such's bad buzz, and so on. It seems to me a more constructive use of my time to burrow into various dark corners of artistic and scientific endeavor...
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to settle in with The Crooked Way, Robert Florey's 1949 post-noir (complete with pre-Blast of Silence second person narration), shot by John Alton...
Michael Kutter and Robert Lloyd, Parsifal, Hans Jurgen Syberberg, 1982
Du sieh'st mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit...
Parsifal is one of those corkscrew artifacts of culture in which you get the subjective sense that you've learned something from it, something valuable or even priceless; but on closer inspection you suddenly begin to scratch your head and say "Wait a minute. This makes no sense." I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says. "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answer, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM. Wagner is right and so are they. It's another Chinese fingertrap.
Or perhaps I'm missing the point. What we have here is a Zen paradox. That which makes no sense make the most sense. I am being caught in a sin of the highest magnitude: using Aristotelian two-value logic: "A thing is either A or not A." (The Law of the Excluded Middle.) Everybody knows that Aristotelian two-value logic is fucked. What I am saying is that—
I confess, aside from the Looney Tunes stuff, the DVD that I've gotten the most serious pleasure from in the past couple of weeks is from the label Voiceprint, and it's called The Soft Machine Alive In Paris 1970. The Softs began as a Canterbury-twisted psychedelic pop trio in the late '60s, their name taken from, as was the fashion in those days, a WIlliam S. Burroughs novel. By the time of this recording, they'd toured the States opening for Hendrix (and, on certain occasions, The Monkees), shed founding singers/guitarists Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers, and transmogrified into an outfit specializing in a fairly cerebral but still somewhat trippy rock-jazz, with organist Mike Ratledge splitting the lead instrumental voice with altoist Elton Dean. Actually, as this recording indicates, bassist Hugh Hopper, when not expertly approximating Jimmy Garrison, was a lead voice too; when he turned on the fuzz effect on his bass he soloed quite eloquently. (On recordings I always assumed it was Ratledge.) For this concert, shot for French television, they're joined by Lynn Dobson, who's convincing on soprano sax and even flute, but less compelling on harmonica—that funky timbre doesn't quite mesh with the predominant sound.
The early color video has its flares and glitches, which actually contribute to the not-unpleasant curio-like nature of the whole package. The mono soundtrack, rejiggered by Canterbury-rock archive stalwart Michael King, is beautiful. Of course we Softs fans are invariably fans of drummer/singer Robert Wyatt, who's featured here in multifarious glory.
Wyatt was a remarkable drummer, not very show-offy at all—it's not for nothing that Jimmy Cobb was/is one of his favorites—but he's indefatigable, untiring, always inventive. He anchors the group for the most part, but when he drifts off, and into a vocal improvisation...he provides a disinction, a personality that even the ever-inspired Dean is hard-pressed to match.
Art-rock adepts know that in a few years Wyatt would leave Soft Machine, much against his will, form the punning Matching Mole, make two great albums with then, and then become a paraplegic after a fall, and lead an exemplary, still-thriving, still-inspiring singing and writing career from that point on. Wyatt then (left) and now (right):
"You know, I'm really enjoying this," said My Lovely Wife, as we were halfway through the DVD. She's not generally warm to this kind of music. "Maybe it's that it's on video," she said facetiously, but I think that's it, in part. These musicians are concentrating, playing their asses off, making a statement. The statement isn't much more than, in Ornette Coleman's phrase, "This is our music," but watching them make the music renders it something palpable. It's also a kick to see the band's Paris audience. Predictably, almost all male. Perhaps not so predictably, almost all teenagers.
Would kids this young turn out for music like this these days? Those were different times, indeed. (Soft Machine's third album did in fact crack the Billboard Top 50 back in the day.) Of course it could just be that I don't get out much. Maybe some of those math rock bands I hear about get the young'uns. Anyone out there been to a Battles show recently? Please advise.
In any case, for those with a jones for this kind of thing, and I bet you know who you are, this disc is the best fix I've found in a dog's age.
In which a cartoon Peter Lorre waxes disconsolate to his dog, Leopold, over his difficulties obtaining a duck wishbone for one of his experiments. "Ah need that wishbone vaary bedly, Leopold." A potential solution to his problem eavesdrops in the background.
This is one of my favorite Looney Tunes, packed with hilarious non-sequiturs. It's finally turned up on DVD, on Volume Six of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, apparently the last of such collections, which is a shame. There will be other cartoon collections coming from Warners on DVD, but apparently this particular way of anthologizing them has run its course. (Cartoon Brew, an animation blog co-authored by my old pal Jerry Beck, and from which the above link comes, is an excellent source for news of this ilk.) It's a shame, as they're not even close to getting to the bottom of the Tunes barrel (how I long to see Freddie the Freshman again!). However, as most of the universally acknowledged classics pack the prior five volumes, this collection contains a lot of eccentric, oddball stuff—it's kind of the Looney Tunes version of those old jazz LPs that got titled For Musicians Only. Hence, it's incredibly great. One whole disc is devoted to Looney Tunes WWII propaganda, featuring the deathless Herr Meets Hare and Russian Rhapsody. I know the title of this post is singular, but what the hell, you want to see this...
Here's Bugs as Stalin at the end of 1945's Herr, asking the immortal question, "Does your tobacco taste differently?" While it is understandable, as a matter of strategy, that the U.S. joined forces with one mass-murdering totalitarian so as to defeat another, the sight of Our Bugs explicitly extolling the virtues of Uncle Joe is a disquieting one today...
I gave this picture an official review at Cannes, for indieWIre, which you can check out via the link. I haven't much to add, except a couple things:
1) I don't intend an insult when I say it's the most thoroughly joyless film I've seen in...well, I actually can't recall. The Serpent's Egg, maybe? Which would be...31 years ago. Yeah, that's about right. (Name your own candidates in comments, if you like.) Synecdoche is in some respects a comic film, and it does contain a fair number of jokes, but they're all thoroughly mordant, eliciting the kind of laughter that chokes you a bit before it gets completely out of you. In spite of all its convolutions and fantastic contrivances, its pervasive atmosphere is best described by Vladimir Nabokov: "Everything is so gray, so uncomfortable, you feel [the protagonist] is in constant bladder discomfort, as old people sometimes are in their dreams. In this abject condition there is no doubt some likeness with Kafka's physically uncomfortable and dingy men. It is that limpness that is so interesting in [the] work."
Of course, having been dead since around the time of the release of The Serpent's Egg, VN could not be talking about Synecdoche, and is in fact describing the sucking stones scene in Samuel Beckett's remarkable 1951 novel Molloy. But even Molloy, unlike, say, the later The Unnameable, maintains enough of a level of detachment that the ad absurdum detail of the sucking stones scene is both howlingly funny and registers as a joke. None of the funny bits in Synecdoche register as jokes.
2) Of course Mr. Rex Reed was going to hate this picture. For one thing, it contains a shot of a character crouching by a toilet, poking at his own fecal matter, checking for blood. That's just not the kind of thing Mr. Rex Reed goes to the cinema to see. Also, Mr. Rex Reed just recently turned 70. (Happy birthday, dude!) Fact is, anybody over 40 is going to be profoundly uncomfortable with Synecdoche, NY, even as they admire it. How I envy all those in their twenties and thirties who can silkily shrug off the film's extrapolation on the old country adage: La vecchiaia e carogna.
Where would we cinephiles be without Rialto Pictures? More to the point, where wouldn't we be? It's through this distribution company's work that we're able to see gorgeous new prints of stone classics such as Reed's The Third Man, Godard's Contempt, and Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, not to mention timeless entertainments such as Dassin's Rififi and Honda's Godzilla. Without Rialto Jean-Pierre Melville's monumental Army of Shadows would have never gotten its belated American premiere. And so on.
To commemorate the company's first ten years, DVD house The Criterion Collection, which handles the home video releases of most of Rialto's pictures, releases next Tuesday a handsome ten-disc box, "10 Years of Rialto Pictures." I recently spoke with Bruce Goldstein, the repertory programmer for New York's FIlm Forum and a co-founder of Rialto, about the company's beginnings, high points, and why the box contains the titles it does.
"I wasn’t thinking of video when we started," Goldstein insists. "My background has always been as
a programmer, and programmers are always encountering films they’d love to show,
but can’t, because they’re not available. Films aren’t in distribution, license
holders want a lot of money, and even if you find a print there are no
subtitles…I started Rialto because, basically there were films I couldn’t show.
And some of them were Holy Grails. And one of them was Contempt, which was only
around in a print that was completely faded, which defeats its whole purpose.
Another impetus for the company was the copyright laws changed. There was an international trade agreement that restored copyrights
to European producers; prior to that there was a loophole in U.S. copyright law
that put a lot of European-produced titles in the public domain. Hence, a lot of European classics were around
in really shitty versions, such as The Third Man, Nights of Cabiria…a lot of
the films that we were to acquire fell under this new agreement. You see, as long as the films
were in public domain, nobody was going to spend the money to make gorgeous new
prints of them. Once copyright was restored there's a financial impetus for the producers to do just that. So that really helped us. It’s been a boon, not only for us but
movie fans. You remember when certain films were in the public domain, they came
out in 20 different versions, each worse than the other.
Out of context, it's a pleasing, slightly melancholic picture; in context it's one of the most quietly heartbreaking final shots in all of cinema. That's the criminally underrated Dickie Moore in Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past.
I haven't looked at a Dolemite movie in a while. I recall one that was set, at least in the beginning, in Arkansas, and Moore's character is hitchhiking, and there are palm trees lining the highway. Very nice.
My favorite quatrain from the character: "He think he bad/He ain't got no class./Ah mo wrap this shotgun/up his mother-fuckin' ass."