Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno. 2009.
The subject of this documentary - Clouzot’s unrealized film, Inferno - is mesmerizing and, for me personally, could not be more involving. The contours of the story will be familiar to anyone who’s read about some of Orson Welles’ fiascos, or to people who have seen the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, though that film, I’d say, ends up deflating its subject, killing it with overstatement - exactly what this film blessedly doesn’t do.
Given an “unlimited budget” by the film’s American backers, Clouzot indulges his every whim, getting so thoroughly lost, it seems, in his own fantasies that you’d almost think he’d intended to all along. It should be said that there is no particular flare in the documentary’s filmmaking itself - the subject and the imagery (from the 185 extant cans of film) make it what it is - but in this one respect it is brilliant: it leaves the obsessive quality of the film Clouzot was making deliciously underanalyzed, letting the imagery speak for itself. Watching it, you know without being told that it could never all be put together in a single film. But by the end, somehow, you feel you’ve experienced the film. Fragmented art is an experience too. It’s useful to be reminded of art’s essential slipperiness.
One crew member says something near the end of the film that stuck in my head because, well, it’s the whole film boiled down to a phrase. He says something about how what he learned from watching Clouzot, watching him follow this darkening course through the last days of a film that everyone knew was collapsing, was that you had to “see your madness through.” When analyzed in any sense outside of obsession, this simply doesn’t hold up, but there’s a poetic truth to it that is often instinctually observed: self-destruction is often the most attractive, most artistic substitute for creation.
Hot Titles (12): Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger: The Red Shoes
I’m not going to limit myself entirely to things from this year because a) I cant find that many things I liked, and b) those lists tend to hold the present in dubiously high esteem. Nor am I aiming to be other than piecemeal here. This is just what’s coming to me today.
1. Two movies (that didn’t come out this year) that I liked:
I find film in particular pretty disappointing these days. Even the buzzy ones by David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan make me think today’s directors only know how to make one kind of film. They’re like the dancer in Black Swan - rigorously controlled and technically perfect, but without spontaneity, freedom, or surprise.
But I really liked some older movies I saw for the first time this year, especially…
Very extreme, high-strung performances from Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Every scene is pitched at peak intensity. This movie goes for broke and often verges on ecstatic silliness. I was awestruck.
Meyer: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
What I liked was Meyer’s editing. Some scenes, like the nightmarish party sequence near the beginning where everything seems cut too early and too curtly, the soundtrack and the image always at odds, have a randy poetry to them. And there’s a pretty funny script, courtesy Roger Ebert.
2. Some music I liked, or kind of liked, (from this year) this year:
I can’t claim to have had much of an overview this year; I didn’t go out of my way to listen to stuff like I have in other years, so my listening was spotty at best. Even the stuff I did like, I had reservations about. That being said…
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
90% homage, but really nice and under-thought-out, compulsively made 4AD action.
James Blake: CMYK EP
Actually, all of his EPs are pretty good, and not just the three or four from this year. I listened to this one the most, Klavierwerke right behind it. Forward thinking R&B, dance floor compatible but yearning to be headphoned.
Mark Fell: Multistability
I used to listen to a lot of “experimental” music, computer music, including stuff by a group called SND. This is the guy behind that outfit. I couldn’t listen to large doses of this but I thought it was pretty nice in bits. A lot of play with rhythm and timbre, which is lovely; almost none with chords - you get one per piece, which can be grating. I like these albums that do one particular thing and really get in there and dig around in it.
Janelle Monae: Archandroid
Very poppy stuff, nice clean production and album flow, stylistically all over the place - too all over the place. There are a few good dance / easy listening tracks and one song, Make the Bus, that seems to have come straight off an unreleased Of Montreal album (what did Janelle Monae have to do with it? Does she even sing on it? Maybe just a phrase or two?).
Not the best Autechre album, I don’t think. But they’re in a class of their own and everything they do should be given thorough attention. See on See alone is enough of a track to make it worthwhile.
Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this album. I like having it on, actually. But comparisons to Aphex Twin, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream overstate the case. On this album, he’s basically layering a bunch of synths into a nice thick carpet. It’s not exactly news from the future.
3. The books (from any year) I liked most this year:
Milan Kundera: Testaments Betrayed
I read all of Milan Kundera’s essay books this year. This one was my favorite, probably because I read it first. His enthusiasm for the likes of Kafka, Sterne, Musil, Rabelais, Gombrowicz, Diderot, etc, is contagious and propelled my reading for most of the year.
Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke
See above. I hadn’t heard of Gombrowicz before reading about him in the Kundera books. If you ask him, Gombrowicz is a master on par with other far better known twentieth century writers. The book has a very loose, freewheeling structure. The narrator breaks in every so often to tell you so, and there’s an essay of novelistic form somewhere in the first half of the book. The story - if that’s what you call it - concerns a man whose age is mistaken and who is put into a school with a bunch of younger students where he worries about descending to their level of stupidity. (A lot of the book has to do with people’s stupidity.) It ends with a whirlwind courtship and marriage that seems to take place outside of time and place, ambivalent to say the least, but also fond and lighthearted. It’s not exactly love, it’s more like mutual entrapment, but it’s maybe something close to happiness, who knows.
Dave Hickey: Air Guitar
A deservedly famous book of essays about art, the art business, and things that fall broadly under the heading of culture (Liberace, Las Vegas, the Rolling Stones, Siegfried & Roy). Reminds you that interest should come first, whether the object be “art” or not, rather than the other way around. In fact, that might be the only way to save art from itself.
Andre Breton: Nadja
A haunting little book from one of the fathers of surrealism about art and a love affair and a woman whose craziness made her, for Breton, special, beautiful.
Jack Flam: Matisse and Picasso
Jack Flam puts the work at the center of this biography of a friendship, showing how the two artists, radially opposite in character, counted on each other for inspiration, support, and rivalry throughout their careers. Flam’s analysis of individual paintings is excellent but, in the end, the thing I might have liked best about the book was the little snatches of dialogue that reportedly passed between them, or the quotes people took down that show the mutual regard they had for each other. The book is genuinely moving, but in an understated way - more so for that.
Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son
Yes, I know I’m the last person to read and applaud this collection of stories but better late than never. These stories are as exciting for their structure as for their gritty content. They are headlong horror stories, very linear, and they often turn abruptly. I went on to read Tree of Smoke, and didn’t like it much at all.
John Cheever: Journals
I love it when writers I didn’t think I needed to read suddenly become important to me. Not only does Cheever just plain write well at all times, in these journals he says a lot of stuff about aging and disenchantment that cut to the quick. Very affecting. But there’s a lot more than that. I didn’t think it was going to keep me reading as much as it did, but these journals are as writerly as you’re ever going to find journals.
Matthew Collings’s Diary. (See this post.)
If anything, besides having a lot of money, could make me an art collector, it would be paintings like those by Thomas Nozkowski. They’re exactly what makes people collect: uniquely different but within a fixed set of parameters. They look good individually but work best, I imagine, in groups. Each is playful in an off-hand way, belying Nozkowski’s way of working:
"It’s very hard to maintain a certain pitch when you have to do a lot of busy work. So when I made that switch to small canvases, I was suddenly able to do anything. To take the most capricious idea and do it in a minute. What about pink? If it doesn’t work, wipe it off and do something else. Serendipitously, I discovered all kinds of stuff that I never would have come to otherwise, that intellectually would have made for a much longer, slower and harder process on the larger canvases."
Looking at paintings like the ones above made me feel less despairing about art, although it’s never been painting that was a source of despair for me. The problem is lack of interest and lack of pleasure. People act like those things aren’t necessary right now, but I like those things, I think they’re important. Anyway, Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings have those things going for them - they’re interesting and they give pleasure. It’s about color, the finding of a thing you didn’t start out with, latent or subverted form. Really noodly and beautiful stuff.
I’m not much of a gamer so my experience is limited, but I don’t think it’s very often that you find yourself admiring the beauty of a land formation or the way the sun rises over the hills in a game, and I did that many times playing Minecraft. I bought it for ten bucks when it was still in alpha (it’s since gone into beta) and, what can I say, that was money very well spent considering all the fun I had playing it. It’s a sandbox game (meaning, you make your own rules) that encourages creativity the way a lego set does. Some people take on massive architectural projects, others use it like a railroad kit, some people just explore the limitless terrain, digging down into underground caves and mining resources, and some people just fight monsters. I was bowled over by the design of this game (the work of one guy) and, as I said, by the randomly generated terrain. I don’t think anything else impressed me as much this year.
These are probably the best two advertisements for it…
Hot Titles (11): Delbert Mann: Lover Come Back
Hot Titles (10): Paul Verhoeven: Turks Fruit
Film is all but dead as a medium of artistic expression, wouldn’t you say? I see it petering out even sooner than the novel. On the one hand, you have a hollywood system entrenched in formula, far far away from ever dealing with matters of form again. And on the other, staggering pretentiousness (consider the rise of artsy Chinese cinema, which, instead of offering anything much in terms of aesthetic impact, takes the two fastest shortcuts to art credibility: portentous slowness and social conscience). And because these are the choices critics have at this low tide moment, they find it in their hearts (and they find it in their best interests, careerwise) to support both.
The bright side, for those of us trying to ignore, if not accept, what we cannot change, is that some old films, as they sink back underground, are starting to look fresh all over again, and perhaps more poetic than ever for being out of reach to us.
In the last couple of years, a few old art-house films I’ve seen have really stuck with me: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Michael Snow’s Presents (1981), and George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). All three are cheap, seat-of-the-pants affairs, and there’s a loose, handmade feel to each of them. You can sense the materiality in the editing - a certain coarseness and imprecision in the cutting - and, in Hold Me While I’m Naked, you can see it - the film is gorgeously pockmarked. This isn’t a virtue in itself, but it’s a relief from the slickness of mainstream product, in which there is no evidence of a free hand, of a spontaneous choice.
Hold Me While I’m Naked feels like a divinely inspired aesthetic accident. Campy Hollywood nostalgia, melodramatic music copped from B-movies for a C-movie where it works better, and extremely abreviated scenes combine to poetic effect in a thin story about loneliness, sexual frustration, and art as a place to put it all. The imagery is concentrated and almost always interesting, which has something to do with Kuchar’s eye for it, but it’s also because scenes are compact, choppily segmented, and because a lot of the in-between film grammar is taken out; you’re left with a lot of visual nouns. A few of them - a window being closed, a guy kissing a fake bird, a guy in the shower knocking his head against the tiling - insist on being remembered. Kuchar is a savant when it comes to knowing what is working, what can be made to work with music, and when to change to the next thing. This is outsider art so good, so nimble and spunky, it makes you suspicious of the insider stuff.
Presents is quite another kind of film - backyard structuralism instead of the campy primitivism of Hold Me. It’s a film made up of two dissimilar halves (some people see it as having a three-part structure) in which, like an early Flemish diptych, the panels are so unequally weighted, so unbalanced in a way, but where nonetheless there is a kind of compositional rightness to it, though in this case pushed to an extreme that makes you wonder if any two things, no matter how minimal the connection, can be aesthetically reconciled just by virtue of their being put together.
In the first part, after an introduction in which it seems like someone in playing with the vertical and horizontal hold on an old tv, a woman walks back and forth on a very plastic-looking barbie doll set (all pink and aqua). The camera is stationary but the set moves back and forth, troubling the actors somewhat and giving us some artsy, mind-the-medium comedy. Over the sound of the actors speaking and music from a record player that skips as the set lurches, we hear the sound of a director giving direction to, presumably, the driver of a flatbed truck. The culminating event is the camera, which we find out is shielded by glass and on some motorized vehicle of its own, driving forward onto the set somehow, and plowing destructively into the cardboardish props. End of part one. Part two, much longer than the first, is a series of camera movements, quite short, most of them - like a second or two, filmed outside where the color is quite opposed to the artificial pastel look we’ve just come from. Each camera movement (the camera is always in movement) traces a line or motion made by things moving (a bird, say) or static (a line of house rooves against the sky), and each cut is marked by the sound of a single snare drum hit. It’s actually a little hard on the eyes, since the camera is always moving, sometimes quite rapidly, and because of the perspectiveless jumping from one line to another. It’s rigorous but not uptight, and not without wit, though after a while one starts to tune out. 99 mins.
Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is so aggressive in imagery and sound that it seems (only seems, says Susan Sontag) completely naive. One eventually sees that there is something to it besides reeling energy, drag masquerade, and chaotic pansexuality. It’s hard, granted, to see anything else for a good chunk of its orgiastic three-quarters of an hour. So, what is there besides? It’s hard to say what, but I think it’s got something to do with its density, its of-a-piece-ness. Everything in this short film - the writhing bodies, the overdriven music, the screaming, the cultivated foreignness, the swirling, unmoored camera - everything seems pressurized into a solid where you can see the individual components but you’d be hard pressed to break it down. It’s been punched into a rock-hard thing.
Also, there’s this sense of excess, an uncontrollable and incorruptible quality permeating it. It doesn’t slow down or let you get your bearings and there’s nothing in there to help the uninitiated feel at ease. You’re never going to be able to sell a film like this; you’re never going to be able to make a formula out of it - it’s so ill-mannered and distasteful. I don’t mean to say that its this that makes it art. A lot of things are uncontrollable, excessive, ill-mannered, and distasteful that are just that and nothing else. Flaming Creatures screams and kicks, admits to no learning or refinement, sticks its tongue out at everything, and yet it has something about it that strikes of a weird, pagan sophistication, as though dressing up and (playing at) abandoning oneself to wild ritual were, for this imaginary decadent underclass, a substitute for world-weary laughter.
MAYBE NOTE: Flaming Creatures contains, among other perversities, the odd flaccid penis, lots of play with a big flaccid boob, something pretty close to a stylized, multi-party rape scene, and a camera bent on giving you motion sickness. If you think it might be too silly a thing to watch, don’t do it.
Hot Titles (9): Douglas Trumbull: Silent Running
This is from a Hammer Brothers film I watched last year - The Witches, I think. In the digital era, this is what we do - archive frames from old movies wherein two old birds get together in a cardboard car to mull over the nonsense necessary to propel a rickety horror story to its conclusion. It looks like there are three of four layers of flatness here, the ladies too, because of those outlines around them, looking as thin as paper. Watching this movie, I got thinking about how these poor women are going to be stuck in this car forever, looking so wan and trying to take seriously what nobody will ever take seriously again. Film life, even in the crummiest ones, goes on.
Hot Titles (8): Richard Fleischer: Fantastic Voyage
"Well, the only way we can reach that clot is from inside the brain, so we’ve decided put a surgical team and crew into a submarine and reduce it way down in size and inject it into an artery."
Katherine Heigl: Triumph of the Will
On the event of this fluffy New York Times piece (and slideshow!) about her, allow me a little rant about this unlikeable presence in recent comedies, a woman who fills up the cup of ordinary ‘til it spilleth over and still has enough ordinary left to fill up the cup of unremitting irritation, a woman who embodies everything absent from Hollywood right now and whose success, if that’s what continuing to get crappy roles is called, is an embarrassment to audiences worldwide who seem to demand nothing more from their stars than that they appear on-screen with the words memorized: Katherine Heigl.
The piece, ironically, is called “The Unwilling Diva.” Ironically, because never has there been an actor so possessed of will. To watch her on screen is to be bowled over by that drive, the kind of drive that ensures that you are always watching Katherine Heigl and not a character in a make-believe story. It’s always her story she’s acting in, the story of a hard-working girl who climbed (and cried) her way up from the bottom and never made it look graceful for a second. Line after line learned (“Ms. Heigl has a photographic memory for lines”), expressions illustrative of key emotions thoroughly practiced, all the homework done long before the due date, never missed a day. All that work, and …nothing, like wringing water from a stone, work ethic and nothing but. As one of her producers says in the article, “she’s nice and normal and a complete professional. But I guess that makes for a pretty boring story.” You said it! There isn’t a hint of glamour, of mystique, of natural charm or talent in this woman. Just nice, normal, professional, and boring. And this stuff about her being a bombshell? Personally, I don’t see that either. I see the kind of “beautiful” that’s wrought out of the toughest, most unworkable clay, a precarious détente with a wrathful god.
The real problem though is the acting, the absolute lack of spontaneity, and the picture of femaleness she’s inadvertently helping put across. Every hackneyed sentiment, every forced mannerism issued lifelessly out of her has its referent in some earlier model and feels completely unnatural to her. Talking about her off-screen persona, the one that’s gotten her into trouble with the media, she says, “Well do they want a fierce woman or milquetoast? Should I be me, or should I pretend to be something I think people want? Pretending seems pretty ridiculous to me.” If this is the figure she thinks she’s cutting off-screen, why are the women she plays such dry, unswervingly bland characters? They’re exactly that - milquetoast and precisely what she thinks people want. This fierceness she talks about is nowhere to be seen except in the way she applies herself to reinforcing all of the sad clichés of womanhood in our time. One minute it’s tough-nosed, “you go girl” empowerment and, the next minute, the inevitable breakdown, the facade cracks and here come the tears that she never shows anyone, damn it, because she’s so used to holding it together, being everyone else’s source of support, always being the strong one, and concentrating on her work. Well sometimes, as hard as it is to let anyone in, she also needs to cry, to let go! (And it’s not just the parts she’s given that are to blame, it’s the way she seems to believe in the clichés, to invest everything she has in realizing them, as if she really believed that the cliché were every woman and every woman that cliché.)
Seventy years ago, besides having better writers, comedies also had Katherine Hepburn, bubbling over with charm and intelligence, impossible to pin down; and this is our Katherine, too busy trying to do everything right to have any fun at all, enacting some trendy vision of femininity that is apparently bereft of humour, run down, and totally sexless but for the kind of laboured sexiness that has more to do with pained looks and silly music than with attractiveness, mystery, or playfulness. How boring we’ve become.
But worst of all are the serious, actorly moments. Scenes that call for weightier emotions are performed - pounded out - without mercy to the audience, her face put through extremes of feeling with a self-immolating frenzy she must have heard somewhere was the measure of a real actor. Some actors don’t want to look bad and never put enough of themselves out there. Heigl has the opposite problem - she exposes too much too aggressively. There you are watching a romantic comedy and suddenly it’s Inside the Actors Studio with one of the most hungry actors since Tom Cruise. In a comedy, toxic.
I’m going to grant her one thing: she’s been in some of the worst things that Hollywood has had to offer in the last few years (27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth). But I pray I never see her in the Oscar-courting issue-movie role she’s probably just dying to get her hands on. I don’t even want to think about the kind of perfect storm that would be.
For Preston Sturges fans, an article about him in Vanity Fair this month. Nothing you, the fan, didn’t already know about his life story - the quick rise to success and relatively short stay there, but writer Douglas McGrath reminds you why people like these uneven, “feverish” films of his even when being lampooned by them: their world, ”messy, noisy, sometimes tough to take, sometimes hard to beat,” is a lot like the world that is. If you spring for the print version of the magazine, you’ll get some nice swimmin’ pools / movie stars-era photos, too.
Above: Betty Hutton hitting hilarious lows in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Gets me every time.
This (above) is all I need to know about Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard. Consider me standing in line for it (figuratively speaking - I don’t go to the theatre and we both know it’s not going to be playing in one). Here’s an interview with Breillat (via Glenn Kenny’s site) about the movie, from which comes this sentence, taken completely out of context here, just as the above still is (taken out of context, not out of the interview), for your enjoyment: “One thing I didn’t foresee, however, is how slippery that blood would be on that floor.”
Jack Gold: The Naked Civil Servant. 1975.
A one-track portrait of Quentin Crisp, the self-styled “stately homo of England” (John Hurt), made for British Television in 1975. His life, were it anyone else’s, wouldn’t seem all that exceptional but for the immense charisma and dignity he carries himself with; but as a homosexual in mid-century London, it amounts to an act of heroism.
The measure of John Hurt’s performance - and he’s in every scene - is that one forgets, amid the string of domestic arrangements Crisp finds himself in, that all of them are homosexual. There’s no shock in Crisp’s flamboyant lifestyle, nor in seeing it depicted on screen - at least watching it now there isn’t. The shock is in the impoverished ways in which people choose to live out their lives, more generally. Apparently, what gays wanted but couldn’t openly insist on at the time was the right to the same hum-drum existences that everyone else had.
There is something painfully existential about the structure of the film: a life story told as a sequence of brief sketches illustrating (usually three year) spans of time, each with a little epiphany but no major joys, unswervingly focused on its main actor. The only place lonelier than the margins, it seems, is dead center.
priceless anecdotes drawn from my real experiences and souvenir jpegs of lost time
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