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Sartre and Borges on Welles

August 12, 2014 | by

Citizenkane

Theatrical release poster, 1941

In a sense, that poster doesn’t lie: everyone was talking about Citizen Kane. In another, more accurate sense, that poster does lie: not everyone was joining in that “It’s terrific!” chorus.

I hadn’t known, until Open Culture told me earlier today, that Sartre and Borges numbered among Kane’s more outspoken critics. Sartre reviewed the film in 1945, meaning he took four years even to bother seeing it. His is a damning appraisal not just of the movie but—kind of toothlessly—the whole United States cinema culture:

Kane might have been interesting for the Americans, [but] it is completely passé for us, because the whole film is based on a misconception of what cinema is all about. The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kissing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indian who is being pursued, I am the man pursuing the Indian.’ And film in the past tense is the antithesis of cinema. Therefore Citizen Kane is not cinema.

Not exactly an open-and-shut syllogism, but that’s in keeping with the Continental tradition, I guess.

Borges reviewed Citizen Kane in 1941—in fact, he reviewed many a film in his day, among them King Kong, The Petrified Forest, and Sabotage (the 1936 classic, not the 2014 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). Many of these can be found in his Collected Nonfictions. As the translation below attests, his review of Kane is typically well observed, though he’s kind of hard on Rosebud, and we can now say, from the vantage of more than fifty years, that he was dead wrong about the whole endurance thing: Read More »

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Still Slacking After All These Years

July 30, 2014 | by

Everyone’s talking about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood at the moment—as well they should; it’s a remarkable film—but in honor of the director’s birthday, you should revisit his first feature, Slacker, which is freely available on YouTube.

The Criterion Collection’s site has a few insightful essays on Slacker, too. There’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do,” by Chris Walters, which was written in and about 1990, but feels right at home in 2014:

The all-but-total decay of public life has atomized others into subcultures of which they are the only member, free radicals randomly seeking an absent center as the clock beats out its senseless song.

The movie buries its treasure here, in the crevasses of its drollery and craziness. Nothing in the current climate is more permissible than mocking or reducing such people; Slacker celebrates their futility as a sign of endurance and mourns the passing of time by marking it with emblems of affection and empathy, the only prizes worth having.

Or Ron Rosenbaum’s “Slacker’s Oblique Strategy,” originally published in the New York Observer, which makes a seemingly outlandish but ultimately shrewd claim:

Slacker is at heart a very Russian film. Not just in its obvious kinship to Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s great nineteenth-century Russian novel, the classic celebration of the luxuriant pleasures of lethargy and the sensual delights of the contemplative life. There’s another Russian link, to Turgenev and his novels of the “superfluous man.” (And, to make a cross-cultural comparison, there’s a link as well to the seventeenth-century British pastoral “poetry of retirement” tradition, whose varieties are best limned in a volume with the lovely title The Garlands of Repose by the scholar Michael O’Loughlin.)

But on a deeper level, the true Russian kinship is less with Goncharov or Turgenev than with Dostoyevsky, to a novel like The Brothers Karamazov: the kind of novel that is unashamed in its preoccupation, its obsession, with ultimate philosophical and metaphysical questions.

And remember, in closing, the wise slogan proffered by one of Slacker’s many hitchhikers: “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”

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Snapping, Humming, Buzzing, Banging: Remembering Alan Splet

May 13, 2014 | by

Lynch Crucifixion

Millions of Americans heard the name Alan Splet (1940–1994) for the first time as a punch line on television. The occasion was the 1980 Academy Awards, where his sound design the previous year, on Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, had earned him a special Oscar. Citing prior commitments, Splet did not attend the ceremony. When the presenter held up the statuette and the honoree failed to appear to accept it, the evening’s host, Johnny Carson, turned this perceived snub of Hollywood taste back on the truant. “It always happens,” he deadpanned to the audience, “first George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.”

Splet deserves better. He was no joke. In fact, to an exclusive circle of independent filmmakers who know how much his collages of sound and musical refinement added to their movies from the late seventies to the early nineties, his name is still invoked with an affection verging on awe. Tributes can be found on YouTube from Ballard, Peter Weir, Caleb Deschanel, and Philip Kaufman, with whom Splet collaborated on three films. Splet’s sound design and editing on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) ranks among the most haunting and sophisticated of its day—or any day. Leoš Janáček’s string and piano music is as ravishing as Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, underlining not only the distinctly tart Czech melancholia of the novel, but also serving, notes Kaufman, to “supplant Kundera’s voice as the narrator and give the film its drive.”

No filmmaker in those years bonded more intensely or productively with Splet than David Lynch. The two met in 1970 when the writer-director needed a sound track for his short film The Grandmother. (Splet was then employed at a Philadelphia industrial film company, having bailed on a career in accounting.)

With no money to foster the visions Lynch had in his uncompromising young head, the pair spent twelve-hour days inventing effects on the cheap, recording human mewls and gurgles and hissing machine-made sounds. Not until their concoctions matched the images on the editing table and the pairing created an elusive “mood” (a key term for Lynch) were they satisfied. Thereafter, until Splet’s death in 1994, he partnered with Lynch on every major film project, those that were completed (Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) and those that weren’t (Ronnie Rocket).

In the opinion of some, however, their masterpiece of “audio surrealism” remains Eraserhead. Begun in Philadelphia and finished in Los Angeles, its atmosphere is as marked by the sooty poverty of the filmmakers as The Grandmother had been. It was during this time (around 1973) that Lynch, who could not afford paints, did two meticulous drawings in ballpoint pen: a crucifixion, in a style that combines Mattias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, and a resurrection, now lost. Hoping to raise money to finish the film, they had prints made, an enterprise that was rewarded with total failure.

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The Dadliest Decade

April 15, 2014 | by

Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?

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Robin Williams as Peter Banning in Hook, 1991

Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.

But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad. Read More »

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Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

April 3, 2014 | by

NOAH

A still from Noah. Animals, ark not pictured.

Early in Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, Noah, the title character, played by Russell Crowe, comes across an antediluvian beastie, a cross between a dog and an armadillo. The beastie snarls because there’s a broken-off assegai tip in its flank, but Noah wins its trust and soothes it before it expires. Since Noah is famous as the Biblical patriarch who saved animals, a moviegoer might be forgiven for looking forward to more such scenes of human-animal interaction. Will there be an explanation about why the dogadillo didn’t make it on to the ark? Will Noah have to talk a lioness out of disemboweling an okapi on board? Will there be trilobites?

Uh, no, it turns out. Pairs of animals do stream onto Aronofsky’s ark under divine instruction, as calmly and trustingly as if Temple Grandin had designed their on-ramp, but once the creatures are in their berths, the Noah family wafts a censer of magical burning herbs, and presto, change-o—all the animals fall asleep. One of the most charismatic elements of the Noah story—in the opinion of most people under the age of six, the most charismatic element—is quietly euthanized. A stowaway descendant of Cain, looking very much like an escapee from Pirates of the Caribbean, does bite the head off of a dormant rodent and gnaw upon it with much sententious commentary, and a few implausible-looking CGI birds are deputized to scout for land, but apart from these brief episodes, the ark might as well be empty. Read More »

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Tearjerkers

February 28, 2014 | by

cinema_Paradiso

Still from Cinema Paradiso, 1989

Looking at this year’s Best Picture nominees, I realized that while I had liked three, nine out of nine had made me tear up—including The Wolf of Wall Street. Fellow movie criers will understand. Especially for those of us who might hesitate to cry in the light of day, there is a singular pleasure to letting tears flow, even—or maybe especially—when what’s happening on screen is really stupid. I come by this honestly. My father refuses to see any movie in which a child dies.

This outpouring of emotion is not limited to the cinema; after watching Audra McDonald and Norm Douglas perform “Bess You Is My Woman Now” in the recent revival of Porgy and Bess, my mom and I were so overcome that we had to skip the second act and go get a drink across the street. And the list of songs I can’t listen to dry-eyed is so long that I’ve had to quarantine them in their own Spotify playlist. But movies are the biggest culprit.

The first movie that made me inconsolable was Dumbo—Baby Mine,” of course, after he’s been taken from his mother—and the second, I believe, was Chipmunk Adventure, after the baby penguin is taken from his mother. My brother and I both sobbed so loudly in Land Before Time (after the baby dinosaur is taken from his mother) that we had to leave the theatre. Thank God we were never exposed to Bambi. (My mother, traumatized to realize that she was “Man,” resolved at age five to spare her own kids the same shock.) Read More »

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