Sunday, July 02, 2006

THE SLIFR LONG HOLIDAY WEEKEND READING LIST



In the comments column of last week’s “SLIFR Weekend Reading List” post, Maya asked me if he could expect a reading list for every weekend, and I kind of flippantly replied that it depended on how many cool stills from Jean-Luc Godard’s movie I could come up with. Obviously, what it really depends on is finding great stuff to read and share with SLIFR readers on a weekly basis, and Any Major Fool Will Tell You that, with the many masterful, funny, and brilliant blogs and bloggers and critics I’ve come in contact with just in the last year, coming up with such a list ought not to be tough at all. And, voila, it took me about 20 minutes this afternoon to find that out for sure. Here then is this week’s SLIR Weekend Reading List, a guide to some of the best stuff I’ve encountered in the blogosphere this week.

It’s great to see Matt Zoller Seitz up and running again, both at the New York Press and inside the friendly confines of The House Next Door, which really has taken on the qualities of a inclusive community these days—Matt’s blogroll of contributors has expanded to a robust 15 members, all of which have been turning in some really great stuff these days, even if, like me, you haven’t yet had a chance to see even a frame of Deadwood yet.

First, Matt heads up a set of links to House Next Door-related reviews of Superman Returns-- his own enthusiastic piece in the New York Press, Sean Burns’ slightly more tempered but nonetheless positive response in the Philadelphia Weekly, and Keith Uhlich’s ho-hum two-star consideration over at Slant. Here’s Matt:

“Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is no masterpiece. The movie’s first act is hobbled by weird misjudgments (including a criminally underused Eva Marie Saint as Ma Kent), and it’s so choppy that it seems to have been edited with a meat axe…

Yet these flaws don’t diminish the film’s impact. From the moment that its hero (Brandon Routh) returns to the sky to rescue Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) from a plummeting jet, Superman Returns flirts with greatness. Its greatness originates in its respect for Superman’s decency: Routh’s graceful incarnation of the character, and Singer’s decision to express the hero’s goodness in a cascade of iconic images as beautiful as Superman himself…

Where most comic book movies are paradoxically inclined to make their points verbally—bulldozing heaps of raw data in our faces, a la the Matrix movies, Batman Begins and Singer’s own X-Men films—Superman Returns is conceived as a visionary spectacle, a series of mythic tableaus that brazenly liken Superman to Mercury, Jesus, Atlas and Prometheus. It’s a sensory—at times sensuous—experience, modeled not just on great comic book art, but on the crème-de-la-crème of machine-age spectacles: 2001:A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”


You want to see it now, don’t you?

Also in the House of late are a couple of excellent pieces on animation—a five-for-the-day list on favorite Looney Tunes shorts courtesy of Keith Uhlich and Odienator, and contributor Wagstaff’s superb consideration of Warner Bros. vs. Disney vis-à-vis the effects of their respective universes on the pliant sensibility of his toddler son:

"At first blush, one would think that the hyper-violence in Warner Bros. would be more troubling, and indeed, my son did take to Disney slightly sooner. After all, in a Warner Bros. short, it is not uncommon to see a duck getting his bill blown off with a shotgun at point-blank range.

But over time I found that Disney's universe disturbed them much more. This has to do with their respective environments: the universal laws at play; the powers that be.

In Warner Bros., the environment is backdrop, an inanimate background waiting to be controlled and manipulated at the character’s whim. A Warner Bros. protagonist (often protagonist and antagonist simultaneously) might paint a tunnel road onto the side of a rock, opening up a new dimension to facilitate his escape. It is no problem for Tweety to be in two places at once. Dynamite rigged to blow up Bugs Bunny waits until precisely the right moment to explode in Yosemite Sam’s face. Even the hapless Coyote with his ever-backfiring A.C.M.E. contraptions doesn’t start falling until he realizes that he is no longer on firm ground. If you are Bugs Bunny, you don’t fall at all because it’s the law of gravity, and you never studied law.

But in the world of Disney the background has a will of its own. Things swell and breathe with animated life. Objects almost consciously thwart the characters' intentions. No matter how many times Mickey Mouse empties a pale of water, the water doesn’t want to be thrown out and returns to the bucket. After his umpteenth try, the water flies around and splashes Mickey in the face. Or witness Donald Duck and a deck-chair, or Goofy with damn near anything. Disney's universe is often dark, malevolent, and out to get you.”


Also, look no further than the House for Kenji Fujishima’s tasty appreciation of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels and more good stuff from Odienator: five movies for the summer.

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Speaking of the summer, it’s the Joy of Blockbusters Week over at Slate, where a whole slew of interesting articles have been popping up all week long, some related to summer movies, like Slate critic-in-residence Dana Stevens on Superman Returns-- ”Man of Stale-- Superman Returns-- Now Can We Send Him Back?, and some, like Dave Kehr’s ”The Viagra Auteurs: In Defense of Old Movie Directors”, just welcome, fun, fascinating reading. Here’s Kehr on Richard Donner:

”The latest film of the 81-year-old Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion, is presently playing theatrically; 16 Blocks, directed by Richard Donner (76) has just been released on DVD; and Find Me Guilty, a courtroom comedy by the venerable Sidney Lumet (81) is due on DVD on June 27.

For the most part, these filmmakers are doing what they've always done, but infused with more of a calm and contemplative quality. Those latter two adjectives haven't often been applied to the work of Richard Donner, a high-powered studio director who has been in the game since X-15 in 1961 and whose work includes The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), and the Lethal Weapon franchise that began in 1987.

As a screenplay (by Richard Wenk), 16 Blocks seems like a compilation of surefire themes and techniques lifted from a Screenwriting 101 manual: the character in need of last-reel redemption, the interracial buddy-movie bantering (which ends with Def and Willis presenting a united front), and even a ticking clock (the witness has to be at the courthouse by 10 a.m. or the case will be dismissed). Donner greets these contrivances as old friends, as indeed they are to him, but he seems less interested in hammering them home as slam-bang entertainment (the action scenes are restrained, the violence relatively realistic) than in examining them as mechanisms and extracting their valid emotional undercurrents. Like a lot of old man's movies, 16 Blocks seems at first like a movie that you have seen a million times before, and probably done better, but as the movie progresses, its modest sense of scale and absence of rhetorical flourishes (no MTV editing here) gains the upper hand. Donner seems to be deliberately searching for the kernel of truth that lies behind the formulas, and he finds it: Willis' stubbornness in pursuing his goal becomes genuinely moving, the more so since it reflects Donner's own stubbornness in pursuing his chosen line of work.”


Look also to Slate this week for ”The Movie I’ve Seen the Most”, in which directors like Spike Lee, Peter Farrely and Paul Schrader, critic Michael Sragow and a host of others reveal the movie that obsesses them more than any other, Bryan Curtis’ ”It’s a Wonderful List: Inspiring Movies and What to Do About Them”, and lots, lots more.

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Further along the critical front, Manohla Dargis, critic exemplar of the New York Times, and Jennifer Merin, new to the New York Press, provide two probing considerations of the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, while Jeffrey Anderson at Cinematical wonders why more film critics, and audiences, aren’t seizing the opportunity to write about, or go out and see, some of the recent and magnificent reissues of classic and important films like Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows in his piece, ”Jeffrey M. Anderson's 400 Screens, 400 Blows - From the Shadowy, Dust-Covered Vaults”.

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I’ve been seeing Girish’s name popping up a lot lately on a lot of reputable sites as recommended reading for people who know and appreciate thoughtful writing about film and the experience of the medium. Right now, Girish has three excellent pieces available (in addition to the one I highlighted last week) that illustrate exactly why this man is held in such increasingly high regard. First there’s his wonderful examination of ”The Cinephiliac Moment”:

”Proceeding off a tangent from Manny Farber, I'm now midway through Christian Keathley’s tremendously engaging book Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees. It has a central idea that's been clattering around in my head all week. Let me lay it on you and ask you what you think.

Keathley defines and develops the idea of “cinephiliac moments”—these are small, marginal moments that detonate an unforgettable little frisson in the viewer. The important thing to remember is that these are not moments carefully designed to exert great dramatic effect—not that there’s anything wrong with those—but instead they are fleeting "privileged" moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible given (lack of) intention. We end up fetishizing these cinephiliac moments: (lack of) intention. We end up fetishizing these moments.”


And as always, Girish’s readers take him up on his challenge and provide lots of their own cinephiliac fodder in the comments column, after Girish provides some of his own, of course.

Then, in a blithe review of the low-budget sex dramedy A Woman, Her Men and Her Futon, Girish wonders aloud how he came to “writing cinephilic mash notes to late-night Cinemax softcore,” and then offers, as a prelude to his detailed comments about the film, as well as a rationale, “I came for the prurience, but I stayed for the art!” You will too once you start reading Girish’s fine piece.

Finally, Girish applies his prodigious observational prowess to a consideration of ”Theater vs. Home”:

”It is of course a happy truism that watching a movie in a theater is the inarguably ideal way to experience it. For a movie-lover, the theater is a sort of temple, and the experience touched with religiosity. You look up in hushed awe at the screen—in contrast, you look down at a TV screen, as Godard once noted—and the darkness dispatches all distraction, leaving only the light and sound emanating from the screen.

And then there’s the enveloping scale of the image, which you can regulate in relative terms by sitting closer or farther away from the screen. Cinephiles often have their favorite rows and vantage points (when I’m alone: usually fourth or fifth row center; when I’m with others: based upon a process of grumbling and negotiation). Most of all, you relinquish control over the movie by submitting to its (unbroken and continuous) terms, accepting its rules of temporality.

And yet, and yet… there’s a part of me that sees this hushed, worshipful submission to the terms dictated by the work of art as….a tad stifling. Here’s one thing I believe with all my heart: art is meant for use. For use in our daily lives, to be incorporated and integrated into the very fiber and fabric of our quotidian existence. Home viewing can allow this to happen in slightly unique and different ways from theatrical viewing.

I like the ‘impurity’ of the home video experience—the way you can enter the work in new, unfamiliar and changeable ways, interactively, both as a whole and in fragments, disrupting unity and linearity, developing an intimacy with it, committing aspects of it to memory, and thus making use of the work and making it part of yourself in fresh ways.”


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If you haven’t bookmarked Girish’s site or made it a regular stop, you really are missing some excellent, deep-dish, yet pleasingly accessible film analysis. And others obviously agree: Jim Emerson devotes a whole bunch of space to interacting with Girish’s comments on the home vs. theater experience and finds some very fertile ground on which to expand on Girish’s thoughts.


The inaugural image from Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow, submitted to Jim's "Opening Shots" survey by Leonard Maltin

In fact, Jim Emerson’s Scanners has itself become a happy home away from home for this blogger. In addition to his terrifically expansive “Opening Shots” series, Jim posts regularly on specific films and issues of the day (film related or not) in a manner that encourages introspection and observation without ever lapsing into that old familiar of knowledgeable film writers— hopeless, searing condescension. Jim’s blog is a true treasure, and even if I continue to bomb as badly as I did recently on screen-grab challenges like his Opening Shots Pop Quiz I shall continue to return. Scanners is a great site for know-it-alls like me to come by and be gently reminded, by a friendly someone who really does have a seemingly encyclopedic film reference for a brain, just how much there is always yet to learn, and how much fun it can be to learn it too, and engage in thinking about it.

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There’s a Lana Turner Blog-a-Thon just recently completed, and you can check out Flickhead for his joyful ”Memo on Turner”, as well as a listing of where you can go to check out other postings in this latest blogfest.

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Aaron W. Graham is back on the beat for More Than Meets the Mogwai for a colorful examination of Jerry Lewis’ sequel to the Sammy Davis Jr./Peer Lawford romp Salt and Pepper, entitled One More Time. The writing is, as usual, informative, nimble and entertaining, but the Popsicle-colored screen grabs will make your mouth water and send you running for a 50-inch HDTV monitor to screen this movie on. Thanks, Aaron, for the keen reminder of this nearly forgotten bawble!

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Mr. Middlebrow jogs the memory himself, repeatedly, with 125 underrated films, submitted by some of his loyal readers (myself included), in a post entitled Of Underdogs, Dangerfields and Perennial Bridesmaids: 125 Films That Deserve A Second Look”, one of those compulsively readable pieces that will instantly bloat your Netflix queue and make you shout more than once, “How could they have forgotten about…?!”

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Peter Nellhaus checks in at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee with 100th-birthday appreciations of Billy Wilder’s machine-gun-rapid political farce One Two Three and two by Anthony Mann-- Railroaded and T-Men. Peter’s comments are precise and thoughtful, and it’s a testament to how much I appreciate thoughtful consideration in print of the rarely (these days) considered One Two Three that I can recommended Peter’s essay while disagreeing with his contention that One Two Three is not among Wilder’s best— its breathless, furious comic pulse has me believing it is every time I see it or think about it— or that it is probably a fizzle for younger audiences— I saw it for the first time at the tender age of 20, when the movie itself was already 19 years old, and found it riotously funny. And Campaspe chimes in with a comment below the article offering some personal experience to counter Peter’s suspicions as well. But agree or disagree, thanks to Peter, others will be encouraged to see One Two Three, and Railroaded and T-Men, and judge for themselves-- no better tribute can be made to any film than that.

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Finally, on the friends front, at the risk of turning this recurring column into the serious display of Blogrolling In Our Time, I just have to give it up again this week for the continually compelling output of That Little Round-Headed Boy. Check out his great pieces on 3:10 to Yuma and Stanley Kubrick’s heretofore lost short film Day of the Fight and see if you could possibly disagree with me. (And thanks for the shout-out, TLRHB. You really are too kind. And we really must stop meeting like this!)

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A couple of program notes before I go:

Los Angeles fans of Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Trilogy” (a familiar appellation that conveniently leaves out Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Jersey Girl, films that are considerably more respected than the centerpiece of the “trilogy”) will be happy to know that the Arclight Cinemas will be screening Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, one after the other, on Tuesday, July 18. Why? That old black magic called synergy, that’s why. Just so happens that Clerks II opens that following Friday, July 21, at the Arclight and many other places around the country. But only the Arclight can boast an opening night appearance by the director himself. Kevin Smith will submit himself to the Qs and As of fans, sycophants and naysayers at the Arclight following the prime-time evening show on July 21. Smith is a breezy, gregarious, unpretentious fellow and always a lot of fun in this kind of situation, so anyone with a jones to meet and schmooze the director in front of about 500 other paid attendees, as well as for the further adventures of Randall, Dante, Jay, Silent Bob and the rest of the berserkers, should get their tickets now.

And Halloween is still four months away (is that all?), but it’s never too early to get excited about potentially terrifying seasonal fare. I saw an absolutely gut-wrenching trailer today for a claustrophobic new horror thriller called The Descent, which has been bopping around Europe for over a year now (where it was occasionally known as Crawlspace), made its U.S. debut at the Philadelphia International Film Festival in April, and is now set for a full-scale U.S. release on August 4. If the fear generated by the trailer can be trusted, this looks like it could be a juicy one for genre fans.

The Descent is being released stateside by Lionsgate Films which, with its handling of the Saw franchise and Eli Roth’s moneymaking but artistically disappointing gorefest Hostel, is becoming the go-to distributor for horror films that like to mainline the terror rather than dance around the audience’s sensibilities with "overrated" techniques like subtlety and restraint. But restraint is hardly what one expects, or probably wants, when one plops down cash to see Saw, and when an audience gets it, as they did in that movie with Shawnee Smith’s wonderfully perceptive performance, they may not know what the hell to do with it. Smith came back with a sly vengeance in Saw II and proved, if there were still any doubters, that she could deliver the goods in a wholly different way. Smith (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a personal friend of mine) returned last week from Toronto, where filming of Saw III just wrapped. When I talked to her a few days ago I pleaded with her not to reveal any details (a strange request for someone in my position, I suppose, but then again I’ve never claimed to be Harry Knowles). She gladly complied, and with a glimmer of delight in her eye that acknowledged how much I “enjoyed” the second film in the series, she would only say, “You’re gonna love it. It’s the best one of the three.” Good enough for me.

And as if to make the most of this Saw III moment in my life, Lionsgate has released the sure-to-be-controversial initial ad campaign for the third chapter of the film. Collectors of the cheerfully grotesque should grab their copies of this advance one-sheet now, before the M.P.A.A. bans it the way they did the deliciously clever severed fingers that served as the graphics (pun intended—sorry) for the “II” in the Saw II logo. For more details, Erik Davis waxes all grossed-out over at Cinematical. If that’s not good enough, you can check out the movie’s ever-evolving Web site, or go even further and get an up-close-and-personal look at some unfortunate dentistry in service to film art that should whet your appetite, you twisted freak, for Saw III, coming this Halloween.

Have a safe and sane Independence Day weekend!

3 comments:

Wagstaff said...

Hey Dennis, thanks for the spotlight and those links. This should be more than enough to keep me reading all week. I hope you have a wonderful 4th that is safe, sane, and loads of fun too.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Dennis, thanks for the shout-out. I'm truly honored to be mentioned in the same post as those blogosphere emineces you recommend. As for jogging the memory, I can take credit for only 8 or 10; the rest, which were much more interesting and inspired, came from those who participated, your excellent self included.

Dan Aloi said...

Dude! you know Shawnee Smith? I LOVED her in Becker. I'm glad she's found success and a certain fame as a scream queen (the subject of a Biography Channel special I caught part of this morning; not sure if it even included her!! - but it should have. I heart Shawnee.