A friend and colleague sends an e-mail this morning with the heading "Kiiiiillllllllll Meeeeeeeeeee," and below it a link to this.
I must credit Manohla Dargis for taking the existence of Dan Kois with better grace than I ever will; if I were her, I would have had a rage stroke at the point of the parenthetical "Yes Manohla, really guilty!" Like Robin Wood, I don't believe in the guilty pleasure, nor in its probable inverse. That is to say, I don't feel guilty about things I don't "get;" usually, when I don't "get" something, I, like, TRY HARDER, or, after a certain point, give up and conclude that what I'm looking at just might be Bad Art. Hence, A.O. Scott talks just good plain common sense in responding to Kois' challenge (which, let's face it, isn't even at the intellectual level of community college liberal arts discourse), even though I disagree with Scott strongly on Marienbad (we'll have to talk about that some time) and have, unlike him, come around quite a bit on Pedro Costa (I remember he and I both not caring for Colossal Youth at Cannes a few years back; I revised after reviewing, and Mark Peranson's rhetorical I-won't-call-it-bullying had nothing to do with it). The thing that makes Kois' perspective so thoroughly problematic, the thing he just doesn't "get," is that criticism is in fact about a whole lot more than his, or my, subjectivity. Read some fucking Baudelaire, for fuck's sake. Understand the form.
Also, Kois: "I'm not surprised that the response from critics in particular has been mostly hostile; I made jokes, after all, about a lot of critics' favorite movies, and critics are critics because they take taste personally." Um, you call those JOKES, sport?
This, alas, cuts to the quick about what's really unfortunate about this piece: under the guise of "moving the conversation forward" it merely further solidifies the cliqueish, clannish, hail-fellow-well-met, just-us-"normal"-nice-agenda-setting-pros ethos without which amiable frauds such as Kois wouldn't have a career. And once again one recalls the immortal and sometimes unavoidable words of Deanna Durbin. More than a few of you know them, I think.
Extracts from provisional Artificial Intelligence rehearsal, 5/21/11. The personnel for this iteration of A.I. was G.K., vcl and noise guitar, Ron Goldberg, keyboards and laptop, Doug Harvey, bass and vcl, and Daniel Burwasser, drums.
The Green Lantern. Whew. As James Brown might have put it, people, it's bad. But truth to tell the ostensibly heartfelt ostensibly quality indie The Art of Getting By isn't much better. In fact, I'd say it's a little worse. I review both, Lantern here and Art here, for MSN Movies.
These things are always fun at the start ("Yay! I'm gonna watch a shitload of discs!"), daunting in the middle ("When am I gonna find time to watch all these damn discs?"), and a pain in the ass at the end ("Christ, I've got to write about all these fucking discs!"). But I'm trying to manage my time better, and I've got a pile of discs ready to go for the next installment, which I should be well into before the Red Hook pool opens, at least watching-wise.
You may notice I included the Blu-ray of Lolita but not Barry Lyndon. As it happens, I'm still gathering, um, data, on the whole, um, aspect-ratio, um, thing. I will say the image quality of the disc is such that if you can, as Roger Corman might put it, swing with the 1.7-something frame, it's pretty damn good. And that's all I'm gonna say at the moment. In the meantime, enjoy. And as this is the most service-journalism-ish feature on this blog (ground rules: for the most part a subjective but informed image-and-home-theater-experience assessment) it's the one wherein I mention that the blog does have a tip jar widget. Thanks, and again, enjoy.
Equipment used: Players: For Region A domestic and import discs, Playstation 3 console. For Region B import discs, OPPO BDP 83. Display: Hitachi P50V701, 16:9 Standard 2 Aspect Ratio setting, Day (Dynamic) picture setting, reset by eye by author using Lawrence of Arabia film still in Kevin Brownlow's David Lean biography as guide.
A.I. : Artificial Intelligence (Warner)
Possibly my personal favorite Steven Spielberg film, looking very good indeed on high-def. That diffused lighting thang the director and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski so enjoy is rendered very nicely. The slightly inhuman sheen of the cyborg characters seems more evident/pronounced…but the effects stuff looks pretty seamless, at least as seamless as they were at the time. This is the first of several films I’ll be rating in high-def that my wife will never, ever, in a million years let herself be talked into watching—emotional child-abandonment trauma, don’t you know. —A
All The President’s Men (Warner)
Cinematographer Gordon Willis has gone on record calling this hi-def version a botch, and complaining, quite justifiably, at not having been even contacted with a notion to being consulted on it. And it’s true—if the cinematographer’s alive and still has eyes and so one, he or she ought to be consulted. And then you get Vittorio Storaro and his unusual ideas concerning aspect ratios and you…oh, never mind. In any event, the Blu-ray of this classic and still extremely engaging thriller DOES render colors little toward the hot side, particularly in the scenes set in the Washington Post offices—the red filing cabinets do look as if they’ve been freshly painted. Redford IS very golden and blonde. And so on. On the plus side, I have to say that this only really registers as a distraction when you’re concentrating on these details. In a lot of other respects, the new detail really enhances the absorbing viewing experience. But still. Come on. — B-
Le Amiche/La Signora senza Camelie (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Import)
Two separate packages, Region-B locked imports from a great label; both spectacular looking black and white ‘50s 1.37 films; both correctives to the conventional (and fortunately now-fading) wisdom that Michelangelo Antonioni only became a major filmmaker with L’Avventura, and the equally incorrect notion that L’Avventura represented a major break from his prior films. Both insanely good films. Ostensibly '50s melodramas, with Le Amiche being the ostensible "women's picture" and Signora a not-quite avant le lettre quasi Daisy Clover showbiz exposé. Both Antonioni to the bone, in fact—brilliant, detached, virtuosic but ampathetic constructions. Have I mentioned the image quality is remarkable? The very astute Gabe Klinger’s smart video discussions (shot, and not badly at that, by one Joe Swanberg, making these quite possibly the only Swanberg-related products besides that Criterion My Dinner With Andre that I’ll ever be able to whole-heartedly endorse, although hope does spring eternal) are engaging extras on each of the discs, although be aware, Mr. Klinger is sufficiently youthful-appearing here as to perhaps inspire some envious “Doogie-Hauser-of-film-crit” grousing. But he really knows his stuff, and contextualizes it and communicates it in an engaging, direct way. Really remarkable image quality, have I mentioned that? No kidding, it's like a newly struck print on Signora. Same with Le Amiche. A new excuse to buy a region-free Blu-ray player. For real. —A+
Betty Blue (Cinema Libre Studios)
First thoughts upon popping in the disc, almost literally: “What the fuck is up with this MENU?” Ugly typeface, poor navigation. The trailer preceding the menu, advertising this upcoming group of high-def releases of films by director Jean-Jacques Beineix, also flummoxes, being all over the place in terms of image quality. Once you get past the menu and into the film, though things improve. It looks pretty damn good, there’s SOME noise evident at intervals in shadow-pocketed areas of the image, but nothing overtly egregious. The summery golden beach glow of the early idyllic scenes is very nice. The subtitles are shadowed for easier reading. There were weird pauses when skipping chapters on my player, but other than that, this was a nice surprise. —B+
The Beyond (Arrow)
Lucio Fulci’s provocative meditation on the challenges of hotel renovation gets the elaborate cultists-gone-wild treatment courtesy of Arrow. An import at an import price, but a region-free one. A pretty much perfect rendition of the never-not-opportunistic horror cheapie: Grungy. Viscous. Disgusting.
Ew, and additionally, ick. As such, pretty great. —A-
Bicycle Thieves (Arrow)
Awesome U.K.-based label Arrow isn’t just about the exploitation films, you know, and this high-def rendering of a DeSica picture you might have heard of is thrillingly beautiful. Really sharp and beautiful for the most part, displaying a little material-related softness in some areas, but overall a complete gift. This is Region-B locked; I don’t know if a domestic rendering of the film in Blu-ray is in the works, but if you’ve got the set-up for it this release is a must. —A
The Black Pirate (Kino Lorber)
As great Douglas Fairbanks silents are concerned, no, this isn’t The Thief of Bagdad, but it is frisky and full of derring-do and has incredibly interesting two-strip Technicolor sequences. This Blu-ray’s from a master made from the restoration negative and has an abundance of what we sometimes call “good” grain. It’s a touch on the bright side… and largely pretty beautiful. The colors often have a muted pastel feel that’s not at all displeasing. The detail reveals a good deal of the movie-magic involved in concocting this seafaring fantasy, e.g., painted backdrops on the desert island, pancake makeup on Fairbanks. A nifty package. More, please. —A-
Blow Out (Criterion)
Not my favorite DePalma by a long shot, not even at the time, even though I saw it in theaters something on like a half dozen occasions during its 1981 release. What can I tell you, I must have had a weird and/or insufficient social life back then. In any event, this new, director-approved presentation has more grain on it than I actually recall. Detailing and colors are very strong, very consistent. This isn’t the place to get into a debate on the relative merits of the picture itself but I do have to say that the blasted thing does move right along and holds together on its own terms. In other words…they don’t make ‘em like they used to? Who knows. Also, the guy who plays cranky-on-television dude “Jack Matters” (Maurice Copeland) looks an awful lot like future-suicide-on-television Bud Dwyer, which is weird. In all, a package to delight even the skeptical on this picture, I’d say. —A
The inspired, innovative cinematographer was 100. He had not worked since the late '70s.
Of course everyone will put up images from The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and of course they should, but I wanted to illustrate Fischer's artistry with a pair of screen caps from Ingmar Bergman's 1949 Thirst. The troubled couple Rut (Eva Hennig) and Bertil (Berger Malmsten) have another one of their fraught conversations in their claustrophobic train car, with Bertil playing with his cigarette lighter as Rut speaks.
Look at the subtle way the flame from the ignited lighter illuminates not just the frightening look on Bertil's face but also seems to brighten, just the tiniest bit, Rut's cheek, the white of her right eye. It's lighting manipulation, and light capture, at an incredibly subtle and technologically advanced level. It's the kind of almost spiritual illumination that made Fischer such an exceptional film artist and superb Bergman collaborator. R.I.P.
Tokyo, or something like it, in Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972
Aside from being a bit of a dick about it on Twitter, because being a bit of a dick about things on Twitter is kind of how it works for me in that format, I've been staying mostly clear of what the no-doubt very pleased new York Times person Adam Sternbergh has called a "film critic food fight" over the Times' Magazine piece by Dan Kois about, you know, that whole "cultural vegetables" thing. The reason I'm steering clear of it is that it's way too personal for me, in that it gets me too angry, as note my own characterization of Kois's unflattering characterization of Derek Jarman's Blue, below. There's a difference between being a dick on Twitter and going around dropping napalm on professional bridges; and I can only hope that by the time I've successfully completed the steps that will enable me to walk away from this you-know-what business (if indeed I ever do, which is doubtful), I'll have at least acquired the measure of grace that'll make me no longer even want to napalm anything. But right now I'm stuck.
I would, however, like to address an unfortunate misapprehension that has arisen in the discussion. In his original piece, Kois describes some of his difficulties with Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris. "In college, a friend demanded to know what kind of idiot I was that I hadn’t yet watched Tarkovsky’s Solaris. 'It’s so boring,' he said with evident awe. 'You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.'" Kois relates that he then sought out the film "because the intimation that there was a film that connoisseurs knew that I’d never heard of was too much to bear" but that it was terribly removed from his "cinematic metabolism" and that he zoned out on it but when asked by his friend what he thought of it replied “That was amazing,” I said. "When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval." Leaving aside the fact that the anecdote makes the author and his friend look like utter tools even by the lax standards we allow for the callowness of college students, and that Kois did in fact seek out and watch the film for all the wrong reasons, leaving aside the annoying habit that so many critics have of presuming that THEIR threshold of boredom is in fact THE threshold of boredom (I stole this from a critic friend who I won't make trouble for by naming here), leaving aside the category error that elevates actual boredom, that is, irritated disengagement, as a condition necessary to high-art profundity...leaving aside ALL of that, let's look into the notion that boredom was the condition that Andrei Tarkovsky was aiming for in his work. That's what Andrew O'Hehir (who's a friend, or at the very least a very friendly acquaintance) more than implies in his response to Kois' piece in Salon, where he praises boredom as a positive value (in a way) and speaks, at the end, of "works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode."
I believe that Tarkovsky would object to the idea that his films were "deliberately" boring. Although Tarkovsky made intensely personal films that hewed uncompromisingly to his own vision, he was very invested in engaging his audience and extremely proud when his 1975 film The Mirror, considered here in the West to be one of his most obscure, even gnomic movies, was something of a popular hit in Russia. His definition of film, as given in the title of his book of strung-together essays on the art of filmmaking, was "sculpting in time," and thus pacing was extremely important to him. And yes, he was interested in slowing things down, and did so quite often, as in the looong shot of the three main characters in Stalker as they make their way into the "Zone," with, among other relentlessly repetitive features, its droning, maddening click of their conveyance travelling over the railroad tracks. And this shot was possibly meant to strike the viewer as odd, or even aesthetically querulous, but still did not constitute, entirely, a form of negative engagement. I'm reminded of one of the a phrase David Foster Wallace ascribed to his sister Amy in the acknowledgements of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: "Just How Much Reader-Annoyance Are You Shooting For Here, Exactly?" and its implication that sometimes a little reader-annoyance can be a not-bad thing, at least in terms of bracing the reader. Tarkovsky's pronouncement pronouncements [somebody get this guy a proofreading intern-Ed.] on film art were/are idiosyncratic enough to strike some as either maddening or perversely impractical, but this chunk from his essay on editing in Sculpting makes good sense: "The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters' behavior, the visual treatment and the sound—but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, décor or even editing." Wait, did I say "makes good sense?" Hmm. Of course, today one doesn't HAVE to imagine a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the frame; in the works of Michael Bay, there is no time for time to register itself passing through the frame, rather, the frames themselves are instead keeping/constituting time.
But let's not get into that here. What the pace of Solaris and Stalker and Andrei Rublev want of the viewer is not for him or her to feel boredom, but to feel time; its passage through the frame. I have literally never been bored watching an Andrei Tarkovsky film because there is so very much to see in every single shot, and in the way every single shot relates to the next and the one before and so on. Take the scene Kois mentions, the so-called "five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway." It is indeed five minutes, and it does indeed for the most part depict a car driving down a highway. But it also depicts the character doing the driving, the haunted and nearly ruined ex-astronaut Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who has just been at the countryside dacha of Kris Kelvin and his father, describing his own harrowing experience on the film's title planet. Actually, Burton's not doing the driving; the car seems to be driving itself, and Burton''s talking on a car video phone, and being worried about his son who's being restless in the car; and these shots depicting Burton and his fretful state are, yes, alternated with long shots of highway, a tunnel, and so on. And interestingly enough, a bunch of the highway signs, we notice, are in Japanese. Why would that be the case if Burton was just at a Russian dacha? We never find out; and at the end of the sequence there's a aerial shot of what looks like 1972 Tokyo by night (above). Between Burton's worries and the bizarre sense of displacement created by his seeming to be driving in Japan, the sequence never, for me, registers as in the least boring; rather, it's uncomfortably tense and suffused with an anxiety that's never resolved (as it happens, this is the last we see of Burton).
Allow me to suggest, as politely as possible, that maybe if you are bored by this, your best course of action would be to just leave it alone. Dana Stevens' and other Kois supporters' assertions that the piece was a "confession, not a manifesto" notwithstanding, the essay does intend to set an agenda, and right now I don't want to articulate the agenda I believe it wants to set because it'll look paranoid. But I'm convinced this is not an "innocent" piece. And again, if I continue I'll just get angrier. But I just wanted to put it out there that, whatever it is that Tarkovsky wants from you, boredom's got nothing to do with it.
The color turns up with practically you-can-set-your-watch-by-it regularity in simulated lens flares throughout J.J. Abrams' Super 8, and this annoyed several of my colleagues at a recent screening, and while I can understand their objection, I wasn't all that bothered by it, in part because I do find it such a strangely soothing hue. In any event, I didn't have the opportunity to comment on it in my review of the film for MSN Movies, so I thought I'd bring it up here. Also this week at MSNM, my review of The Trip, and, not quite a month short of July, a gallery of iconic American movie characters, for which, in the end, there was no room for either Norman Bates or Harry Callahan. Which state of affairs I discuss in a "related video" with "Film Fan" host Sami Jarroush, whilst trying not to actually melt, myself. Enjoy.