Tuesday, April 25, 2006

3 days in the life.

So I was originally going to post the next installment of my 5 year long Stanley Kubrick Fest '06, but I saw a movie yesterday that I kinda wanna talk about.

I saw Chantal Akerman's La Captive about 6 or so months ago and was pretty blown away by it. It was slow, but never boring, captivatingly mysterious and thought-provoking. It subtly steered my thinking in various directions without feeling at all like it was holding my hand or being patronizing. Simultaneously, it left itself open in many ways for interpretation. I don't know what it was about the style and narrative of the film, but it was one of the most engaging experiences I'd had with a film, or any other type of work of art for that matter, in a long while. I wanted to see more by Akerman, who I'd previously never heard of, but didn't know where to begin. Someone recommended Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which left me keeping my eyes peeled for screenings. Thanks to the Harvard Film Archive I finally got a chance to see it.

The very first thing I noticed about this film, in relation to La Captive, was how beautiful and colorful it was. Which isn't to say that La Captive wasn't a very nice film to look at, but it worked with a much darker, more limited palette than Jeanne Dielman. The sets in this film are surprisingly colorful, the images so perfectly, formally composed that you can't help but be struck by the photography. The camera remains motionless throughout the course of this nearly three and a half hour long film and yet it is almost always visually captivating.

Jeanne Dielman painstakingly documents three days in the life of a Belgian widow, choosing to document the minutiae of her life in unrelenting detail. Throughout the course of the film, you will see the titular character take a bath, prepare a meal, prepare the table, wash the dishes, all in real time. All with a non-moving camera and with about 3 different angles assigned to the different rooms of the apartment she shares with her son. It's oppressive, but remarkably captivating. The framing, the ornate set and the wonderful performance given by Delphine Seyrig all serve to make this a surprisingly inviting and watchable film, relatively speaking anyway.

The first day proceeds fairly uneventfully. Jeanne's clacking footsteps seem to be amplified, and her movements are mechanical, something that zeroes you in on her routine very quickly, and also really effectively communicates the oppressive tone and feel of the film. This is a routine she does every day and she is proficient at it. Everything seems to be going normally until she gets a visit from a client and we learn that, in addition to maintaining a household, she is a once-a-day prostitute. Her relationship with her teenage son is cold and distant, they exchange a minimum of pleasantries and go about their own business, except at the end when Jeanne's son asks her about his father and she more or less tells him that she never loved him. Her son says that if he was a woman, he could never make love to a man he didn't love. She tells him he has no idea what he's talking about, he's not a woman.

It's a fascinating exchange, and one that I think lies at the heart of this film. As the film progresses and Jeanne's descent into a sort of domestic madness really starts happening, we realize that she's been subject to the needs of a man she didn't love for the greater part of her adult life, and even more than that, to all men, always. She's pressured to marry by her parents, she does. She has a kid, she takes care of him. It's nothing more. When, and I guess I should warn you that this sentence contains a pretty big spoiler, she eventually murders one of her clients, it's as if she is burning an effigy of her dead husband and of all men, I guess. When she kills this man, it is as if she finally kills the thing within herself that holds her to this life, and the ambiguous final shot doesn't really communicate whether she killed herself, if she dies of strange natural causes related to this symbolic inner destruction, or if she just dozes off at the table. It doesn't matter how she dies or even if she dies, she's dead. I've written a simplistic summation of a fairly complex presentation of this idea, but I think it's accurate. When Jeanne babysits the neighbor's infant child on the last day, it shrieks and bawls uncontrollably whenever she tries to hold it and calms down when it's in its crib. This may sound heavy-handed, but it's not. It'd be funny if it wasn't so devastating.

The actual breakdown that Jeanne Dielman has throughout the course of the film is perfectly rendered. There were moments in the theater where I actually felt myself going crazy along with her. The perfectly executed routine of the first day is perfectly photographed, choreographed, edited. By the second day, she starts making small mistakes here and there, the editing starts stuttering a little bit when it comes to her entering and exiting the frame, creating a sort of uncomfortable sense of displacement and mounting urgency to her routine and when she finally makes a mistake preparing the potatoes for dinner, it is seriously a big deal. By the third day when we start seeing new camera angles we'd never seen before, it's difficult to even zero in on the beauty of these wonderfully framed shots, because the sense of discomfort received from getting all this new visual information so late in the film overpowers the pleasure.

On the third day, during a 10 minute, or who knows how long I guess, uninterrupted shot of Jeanne washing the dishes, I saw that one of the dishes she put in the drying rack had suds going down it and I actually kind of freaked out a bit in my seat. I stared at the suds sliding down and couldn't handle it. When she finally grabbed the plate and rinsed it off, then replaced it on the rack, it was a huge relief. It's fucking nuts that a movie can do that to you. Jeanne Dielman is so densely packed with stuff to talk about that I'm almost embarassed to put this pretty cursory look at it out as on offering, but I can't begin to think about what the experience of writing a really long, focused piece on it would be like. Writing about it in this way helped me to think about it more and, I think, got me to understand some things about it that I had previously been confused about, so I guess this blog is starting to serve the initial purpose I had for it. Not to end this post completely like an elementary school book report, but I really recommend you check it out.

update: I was googling this movie trying to read more about it, because I really can't seem to get it out of my head, and I came across slant magazine's write-up of it. I think it's really pretty great and worth reading if more information on this movie is something you're seeking. That last sentence was written by Yoda.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

April showers bring...

... another monthly film log. This one's pitiful, too. But you see how I stepped it up at the end? Big time? Stepped it up big time? Yeah. That's how I want all of April to look. Little write-ups underneath ones I feel like doing little write-ups for.


Dumb Comedy Tallies (all social situations)
Old School: 1
40 Year Old Virgin: 2
Anchorman: 1

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Roberts. [C+] march 1st 2006
Capote, Bennett Miller. [B+] march 1st 2006
Team America: World Police, Trey Parker. [D] march 7th 2006
Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater. [A-] march 7th 2006

The Hills Have Eyes, Alexandre Aja. [C] march 11th 2006
[I was excited going into this. I really liked High Tension, minus THE TWIST, and I kind of like that there's a guy out there like Aja, prepared to make horror grisly and gruesome and horrifying, without feeling gratuitous or disingenuous, like I imagine Hostel to be or know Saw to be. When I got hints of political allegory at the beginning, I was prepared to let myself love this movie, even if it was a fairly superficial and uncontroversial one. But then the story winds up getting real muddled and uninteresting and a guy gets his throat speared on an American flag and I start not liking it so much. Oh well. Maybe I should see the original.]

Inside Man, Spike Lee. [B-] march 21st 2006
[There's elements in this film that feel distinctly Spike Lee-esque and moments where I felt that it was clearly the studio getting involved. It bothers me that this wasn't advertised as the latest Spike Lee movie and it bums me out that the studios feel that his isn't a marketable name. I've heard that he cites Dog Day Afternoon as an influence on this and I really don't see it. Fairly fun thriller with some wonderful moments suffused with some equally terrible moments. Not sure I liked the story overall, either. Something about it feels off. This is the first Spike Lee movie I've seen that I didn't really like all that much. Okay, but not great. And what's with all the conspicuous product placement?]

The Warriors, Walter Hill. [C+] march 22nd 2006
[Maybe I was harsh on this. I do gut reaction grades in my log, but looking back on it, I definitely like this more than The Pillow Book and yet the grades don't reflect that. Fun/stupid adventure movie.]

The Pillow Book, Peter Greenaway. [B] march 22nd 2006
[Wonderful for the first half hour/forty minutes. Mediocre to bad once Ewan McGregor shows up. The whole movie became too narratively focused at that point and all but abandoned the beautiful and startling abstraction that it was before. And then it got good again for a little while and turned bad again at the end. A real let down after such a strong beginning.]

Sans Soleil, Chris Marker. [/] march 23rd 2006
["/" means I had 2 hours of sleep when I saw this on campus and can't remember any of it, which I feel awful about. I've gotten my hands on a copy since then and will totally give it a legit viewing sometime in the near future.]

Freddy Got Fingered, Tom Green. [+] march 25th 2006
["+" means I don't want to rate it, but I love this movie. I don't want to justify it or discuss it much, or anything else, but I will say this: It's one of my favorites and I definitely think it's brilliant, and not in a novel sense but in like a "this is a great work of art" sense. No one else has my back on this and I don't expect them to.]

Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Michel Gondry. [A-] march 26th 2006

Brick, Rian Johnson. [A-] march 29th 2006
[Boy was I excited to see this and boy was I happy that it fulfilled all my expectations. I was considering giving it its own post, and I may still do that in the next couple days, so I guess I'll leave it at "it really blew me away." It seems to be a real divisive movie; most people can't seem to agree on the issue of its main stylistic element: the hard-boiled dialogue in the mouths of teenagers still in high school. Those guys are jerks.]

Invisible Children, three dudes. [A] march 31st 2006
[I can't remember their names, it's not on IMDB and I don't really wanna search around on their site right. It doesn't matter, really. The film is good, but it's not great. That said, it's a great film. An utterly devastating documentary about three pretty well-off kids that go to Africa to make some sort of documentary in an attempt to "find themselves" but instead wind up stumbling upon one of the saddest, most intense stories I've ever seen. Rebel armies in Uganda kidnapping young children, aged 7-12 and forcing them to become soldiers in their armies, brainwashing them, torturing them, subjecting them to horrible conditions. Right now it's about 45 minutes long and the guys that made it are touring it around the US. They're hoping to make it into a feature that will get released next year. If it comes near you, please make an effort to see it, it's really wonderful, inspiring and heartbreaking and I think more people should become familiar with this issue and want to do something about it. I left the theater blubbering uncontrollably.
http://www.invisiblechildren.com Check it out, see if and when it's coming near you, as if anyone reads this, and see it. Seriously. I'm sleeping out on the street on April 29th because of this movie.]

Junebug, Phil Morrison. [B+] march 31st 2006
[I'm glad this was great. I didn't know what to expect of it and I was anxious that it would be another sort of generic "indie" mvoie, but it wound up being a really inventive, truthful and beautiful film. The audience I saw it with was largely unbearable, laughing at a lot of spots that simply weren't funny and betraying their contempt for the people portrayed in it. Their laughter reminded me of why I hate shit like Napoleon Dynamite: the entire joke hinges on you wanting to laugh at the people in the movie and letting yourself feel superior to them. Napoleon Dynamite is reprehensible, but this film doesn't have any element of that mawkish grotesquerie in it. Instead, the audience seemed to attempt to inscribe it into it. I hate how ironic my generation is getting; we're post-post-post-post-modern and it's really getting kind of unbearable. People can't be earnest without suspecting themselves or each other of sarcasm and it depresses me. This screening was just another example of that. That said, I thought the film was great and Phil Morrison, who was there to do a Q&A, seems like a stellar guy. One of the most insightful Q&A's I've ever attended and one that I feel took a lot away from.]