Tuesday, May 30, 2006

SHOHEI IMAMURA 1926 - 2006

On the day that Howard Hawks would have celebrated his 110th birthday, news comes of the death of the great Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura, who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or twice, for The Ballad of Narayama in 1993, and again for The Eel in 1997. David Hudson at Green Cine Daily has compiled an excellent series of links in tribute to Imamura which talk about specific films in the director’s filmography and his place in the history of the Japanese cinema. Shohei Imamura was 79 at the time of his death, which was attributed to liver cancer.

And as for Hawks, here's Sheila O'Malley with a fine appreciation.


Finally, my family and I were lucky enough to find ourselves at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood this past Sunday for a rare opportunity to see Walt Disney's Dumbo on the big screen, and I will say that if you've ever only seen Dumbo on VHS or on DVD, you've seen it, all right. But I'd wager it has never washed over you or reached out and grabbed you with its vivid, super-saturated colors, wonderfully subtle visual characterizations, honestly moving character relationships and sharp comedy as it does when it comes trumpeting off that giant screen. (When Timothy J. Mouse describes Dumbo's exile from his circus environs to the crows and says, "Socially, he's all washed up!" I laughed out loud as if I'd never heard the line before.) Disney is presenting this rare screening basically as filler until the release of Pixar's Cars next week. That means that if you're reading this in the greater Los Angeles area, you have until next Wednesday, June 7, to get yourself a ticket and see this genuinely brilliant classic of animation the way it was meant to be seen, and it has probably never been seen to this great an advantage ever before. More than once, while watching it, I was reminded of the great, blubbering joy with which Robert Stack's General Stillwell sat and watched Dumbo while all of Los Angeles, or at least Hollywood Boulevard, crumbled around him in Steven Spielberg's gloriously funny 1941. Though it's difficult to determine from the film, I've always fancied that the El Capitan Theater, which at the time Spielberg's movie took place was known as the Paramount and had only just recently played host to the world premiere of Citizen Kane, was also the theater in which Stack sat watching Dumbo. One of the funniest and most touching images in Spielberg's work is that of the stern General Stillwell watching through uncontrollable tears as Mrs. Jumbo's trunk comes snaking out of the caged cart in which she is imprisoned, groping until it finds the slumping figure of the little elephant with the gigantic ears, her son from whom she has been separated, and then caressing him with gentle assurance and love. Looking at this moment at the El Capitan, it also settled on my mind why this movie, in this place, was the perfect activity for me and my family to experience together on this Memorial Day weekend. It wasn't intentional, and maybe that's why it was perfect. Sometimes life is like that.


Every once in a while there are still surprises left in the Hollywood jack-in-the-box. A fatherly obligation-type outing with my daughters to see Over the Hedge, the new animated comedy from Dreamworks, had a most unexpected result-- almost complete delight on my part. Based on the preview and the general tone of some fairly dismissive reviews, I went into expecting not much more than a headache, much like the ones I got out of taking them to see Chicken Little and Robots. But Over the Hedge is different-- while not exactly suffused with poetry, there are images here that popped in my head and made me gasp with happiness.

Based on a comic strip with which I'm not familiar, the movie tells the story of a rummaging squirrel (Bruce Willis) who ends up in debt to a very grumpy bear (Nick Nolte) and must make restitution in the form of as much processed junk food as he, and the various woodland creatures he cons into helping him, can pilfer from a nearby suburban housing project located, yes, over a imposingly tall hedge. The voice work from Willis, Nolte and others like Steve Carell, Garry Shandling, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, William Shatner, Alison Janney and Thomas Haden Church is among the wittiest of any of the post-Pixar computer-animated movies, and Over the Hedge, unsullied by the increasingly lame pop culture raiding that characterize Shrek and so many other sub-par efforts in this genre, can stand beside the best Pixar has to offer (which is just about their whole output, isn't it?) Hedge has an appealing, manic energy, best exemplified by Carell's characterization of an overstimulated squirrel, whose encounter with a can of super-caffeinated energy drink is probably the funniest sequence I've seen all year, but it has pleasing variances in that pace and tone as well-- it's not a marathon of in-your-face slapstick and incessant screaming on the order of Chicken Little.

And though it's not exactly on the order of incisive satire, the degree to which the movie does engage with the idea of holding a mirror up to our consumer culture and impulsive consumption of junk food should probably be commended, particularly considering the movie's core demographic. (Reconciling that thematic notion with the appearance of Over the Hedge Pez dispensers at my local supermarket was, however, slightly more difficult and troubling.) Over the Hedge has a sharpness that I think the likes of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng would have approved of, and it reminded me a lot of what those great Warner Brothers animators' work would look like if they were alive and working in pixels instead of with pens and paints. Over the Hedge might just be as much of a happy surprise to anyone else who holds their legacy of fiercely intelligent, playful and bright cartoons with love and admiration as it was to me.


A lifelong fan of horror films, particularly those involving a slate of victims, female and male, being pursued by a masked or otherwise elusive killer, might be moved to reconsider his or her vocation after watching William Lustig's Maniac, the notorious (at least at the time of its 1980 release) grindhouse serial killer opus coscripted by and starring the late, great character actor Joe Spinell, which I caught up with courtesy of the Independent Film Channel last week. Spinell's was, more accurately, a great character face, one that spoke of trials and dramas and difficulties and experiences which he was able to lend to the various unsavory characters which he played throughout his career (which ended with his death by heart failure in 1989).

No character he ever played, however, matched the unsavoriness of the one he wrote for himself, a none-too-originally mother-obsessed psycho who, for reasons never made entirely clear, scalps women, rapes them as their life ebbs away, and then takes the bloody hairpieces home to attach to a series of mannequins with which he has a series of whiny conversations meant to convey his twisted inner life. Well, pardon me, but the grimy milieu and the grotesque sequences of gore on display courtesy of makeup maestro Tom Savini (who, in a silly cameo, reserves the movie's most explosively gooey death for himself) do enough to illuminate this maniac's twisted outer life to more than satisfy me. And anyway, any serious look at how this guy's twisted inner life is being represented would be sure to generate plenty of derision from anyone with even a passing familiarity with the work of Sigmund Freud. But such derision would require far more energy than was devoted to the movie itself, which hinges on long, slackly constructed scenes in which frightened women seek out the most depopulated areas of New York City in which to try to escape from our mouth-breathing protagonist, and then inexplicably hang out in these deserted areas until that inevitable moment when Spinnell pops out from behind them and eviscerates them in loving close-up. These scenes are followed either by sequences featuring Spinell groaning and chewing over monologues in which he addresses his long-dead mother, or even more preposterously, ones in which he insinuates himself into a romance with a lovely photographer (who will, of course, eventually become his target) played with surprising stiffness by Hammer horror icon Caroline Munro.

Spinell obviously conceived Maniac as a kind of actor's showcase for himself which he could fold into an exploitable premise, and judging by the high profile this movie had in drive-ins and even indoor theaters in 1980, his strategy for getting his work seen obviously worked. It's too bad that the work itself is so deplorable and rootless and lazily realized. It's easy to see the influence of Taxi Driver at work here in the first-person intimacy Spinell, as writer and performer, forces upon the audience. But Maniac's Frank Zito is no Travis Bickle, and Lustig (who also helmed the three parts of the Maniac Cop series) is certainly no Martin Scorsese. At one point Spinnell even apes Bickle's most famous line-- "Are you talkin' to me?"-- but it's tossed off in a close-up shot from the side, defusing the confrontational stance taken by De Niro and emphasizing the silly self-consciousness of the quote. Maniac has all the grim trappings and coarseness of hard-core exploitation, minus the cold spike of recognition to the heart representing the point of view that a real horror filmmaker, like Tobe Hooper or Larry Cohen, might have brought to the party. As a character study of a man driven mad by abuses showered upon him by society or a long-dead mother, forget Taxi Driver or Psycho-- Maniac is bad enough to make me consider in a whole new light the treasure trove of psychological observations to be mined from careful observance of the mournful saga of Jason Voorhees.


Thanks to Internet buzz, combined with the old-fashioned kind whispered throughout the usual Hollywood infotainment and party circuits, we all knew ahead of time that Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon was a shamefully dumb and shoddy movie and unlikely to make the truckloads of cash expected by its producers. Of course, when the box office numbers for the first weekend came out and the movie ended up getting trounced by Mission: Impossible 3, which was by then week-old product, it was time for the prognosticators to come out of the shadows and lend credence to the interpretation of a $22 million opening weekend (which was certainly less than what the studio, Warner Bros., was hoping for) as a reflection of audiences' disatisfaction with, or disinterest in the movie, and the die which was cast in the previous weeks was now perceived fact-- Poseidon was a bomb.

Critical reaction was no less savory. Despite good reaction from the likes of Peter Rainer, Lisa Schwarzbaum, William Arnold, David Denby and Sean Burns, the reviews that were paid the most attention were the ones that took the crimes-against-humanity tack, or the ones that insisted, against all evidence in the trailers, that the special effects were terrible, or the ones that allowed the reviewer to trot out his/her worst Das Boot/Perfect Storm-based punnery while making sure we all knew just how much smarter he/she was than the movie under consideration. (Ed Gonzalez writes much more intelligently, if not entirely convincingly, about the film's racial subtext in the virtual pages of Slant.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex, or after arriving there, more precisely: Poseidon turned out to be a brisk and solidly crafted slice of blockbuster entertainment. In a time when some of the most common salvos fired against modern Hollywood epics, like Peter Jackson's King Kong, are accusations of flabbiness and bloat, Petersen's remake is crisp, exciting, well-acted and paced like a 150-foot rogue wave bearing down on its target. In fact, its pace might even be a bit too brisk; the prologue to disaster actually feels underwritten-- there's barely 15 minutes of buildup before the arrival of that wave. And once the ship is fully capsized, the movie skimps on the kind of juicy showboat dramaturgy that comprised the 1972 original's debate between the captain and Gene Hackman's irreverent reverend over whether to climb up or stay put. What we do get, courtesy of screenwriter Mark Protosevich, is some rather inelegant dialogue, the worst of which comes out of the mouth of architect Richard Dreyfuss, a despondent gay man jilted by his lover who rethinks a suicidal jump overboard when he gets a look at that wave. In voicing his support of the idea of climbing up to the hull of the ship, Dreyfuss exclaims, "I'm an architect, and I can tell you, these ships were not made to float upside-down." Admittedly, that's a pretty silly line-- imagine Red Buttons from the 1972 film saying, "I'm a haberdasher, and I can tell you..."-- but I'd be willing to bet it'd be easy to find dumb lines in any randomly chosen big-budget blockbuster of hardier repute than Poseidon-- say, the new installment in X-Men saga, for example. The fact is, the disaster genre is one that is easily condescended to, especially when we're talking about a remake (arguably an unnecessary one at that) of perhaps the most well-liked entry in the entire genre, and dialogue like this does the movie no favors in the eyes of any who are predisposed to despise it.

But once this new movie does get down to its real business (assuming that crafting electrifyingly witty bon mots for its cast to toss around while outrunning a rising level of sea water is not its real business), it exploits the claustrophobia of the situation much more efficiently (and perhaps even a touch sadistically, says this claustrophobe) than did director Ronald Neame's film, and there are two or three squirm-inducing action set pieces that are, without debate, exceptionally well directed. The effects, both computer-generated and those old-fashioned live-action stunts and mechanical sequences that comprise the capsizing of the ship and everything else that follows in the wave's wake, are nightmarishly effective-- I honestly don't understand any of the complaints about the film in this department, except on the level that if the movie is bad, then it must all be bad. (None of the reviews I've read that have claimed deficiencies in Poseidon's special effects have offered up much evidence to support this puzzling claim.) And, as if to settle the flabbiness and bloat argument before it even gets started, the whole thing clocks in at around 99 minutes, some 20 minutes shorter than the original. (To be honest, that relative lack of buildup before the wave hits is a bit jarring-- it's as if Petersen succumbed to impatience, either to his own or to the kind inspired by audience testing scores. It should be fairly interesting to see what the inevitable, and inevitably longer director's cut will look and feel like on DVD.)

Those who still harbor a fondness for that 1972 original (I do) will also undoubtedly miss the scene chewing provided by Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, Arthur O'Connell and Stella Stevens et al (I did), and will note with some dissatisfaction the absence of the Christmas tree that handily provided the group's initial climb out of the ballroom. There's really very little made of that exit in the new film-- just a couple of quick toe-holds to the next level, where Lucas, Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell (fireman and ex-mayor of New York City!), comely single mother Jacinda Barrett, her whiny son (who will make you appreciate the matter-of-fact comic timing of Eric Shea) and doomed galley worker Freddy Rodriguez hook up with Russell's daughter (Emmy Rossum), her boyfriend (Mike Vogel), Rodriguez's stowaway girlfriend (Mia Maestro) and fatally obnoxious comic relief Kevin Dillon as Lucky Larry, a card sharp whose name turns out to be very ironic indeed.(His quick dispatch is another point in favor of Petersen's lean, no-nonsense approach.) And as spectacular as the special effects and set design are, as my friend pointed out afterward, without the accompanying visual wit of wandering into, say, a men's restroom and seeing the urinals hanging from the ceiling, there's little to reinforce the essential disorientation, the indigenous surrealism of the idea of climbing through an upside-down world. The innards of this Poseidon are impressively detailed, but they too often call to mind a bombed-out building rather than the telling details of what one might find in the nightmare of a capsized ship.

Along the way characters are dispatched, some-- like Lucky Larry-- we're glad to see go, and some that create some unexpected heartache and ambivalence to swallow along with our popcorn and Diet Pepsi. For Ed Gonzalez, the recognition of the social strata of the cruise ship-- minorities below decks in roles of servitude, rich folks (of varying colors but, as far as the group we will follow, exclusively white)-- is an understandable source of frustration because the film doesn't explore that schism so much as exploit it with the tried-and-true methods recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood genre film. (Was the original's exclusively white casting any less offensive, even as it expressed the egalitarian ethos traceable to Paul Gallico's original novel much more successfully than this new film does?) Poseidon skirts this issue in the relationship of Rodriguez and Maestro's characters to that of Dreyfuss, who is (in the film's most shocking moment) forced to cause the death of one, at Lucas' insistence, in order to stay alive himself. (Gonzalez's characterization of the event aligns it closer to murder than simple survival, which is, I think, wrong.) Then, when Dreyfuss subsequently forms a relationship with the surviving member of the couple, neither of them are aware of how Dreyfuss' previous action colors their own growing closeness. Unfortunately, the movie never really follows through on exploring this relationship and casting light on the intended or subtextual meaning, if any, of so casually disposing of the film's only real representatives of ethnicity. For whatever reason, it is a missed opportunity, and Poseidon opens itself up to charges of crass exploitation and indifference in the process of passing it by.

The movie trades off considerations of race and social standing in favor of focusing on Russell's testy relationship with his daughter and her boyfriend, and Lucas's gradual emergence from his shell of self-interest to be revealed as an empathetic human being as he casts himself as protector of Barrett and her son. These are much more obvious, and much safer waters to tread, and not of much interest as drama. Fortunately, Poseidon is mounted so spectacularly and with such brutal efficiency as a piece of action filmmaking that the only real drama that matters is quickly reduced to a basic set of human fears and the audience’s ability to empathize with the simple impulse to survive. I think I would be much more concerned with Poseidon's deficiencies of script and character if I had any real expectation going in that there would be anything substantive to invest in the characters beyond the recognizable signposts that allow them to read as fellow humans on screen. There is empathy to be had with each and every person on screen, however, because of those signposts, and because of actors like Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Freddy Rodriguez, Mia Maestro and Jacinda Barrett, who, despite being saddled with some lumpy lines and having not an ounce of the original cast's juiciness and campy appeal, still always project a measure of dignity that is a signpost itself, one of good actors condescending neither to their material nor their audience-- Russell, one of our best and most underrated actors, stands out quite typically in this regard.

The same cannot, unfortunately, be said of Dillon, or Andre Braugher in a rare gaseous mode as the ship's captain, or the creepy Stacy Ferguson-- Fergie, of the pop group Black Eyed Peas-- whose hip-hop flavored "songs" aren't a patch on Carol Lynley and "The Morning After." There is no shame in enjoying seeing these folks meet their fates, watery or otherwise. Nor should there be in enjoying Poseidon warts and all, a stout, often excruciatingly suspenseful, often clunky, certainly imperfect but ultimately very effective example of the kind of expensive high-concept picture that Hollywood often does well, usually with equal measure of conviction and crass, cynical commercialism. It will replace the Irwin Allen production ("Who will survive?!") in precisely no one's affections, and though it does cast an eye toward them-- Allen's widow, Sheila Allen, in a superb example of the fine art of movie crediting, is listed as "executive producer"-- it doesn't ever seriously attempt a raid on those affections. It is, however, as directed by Wolfgang Petersen with his faithfulness to verisimilitude in representing the claustrophobic terrors of disasters at sea, as indicative of the times in which it was made as the 1972 film was in representing a golden cast of Oscar winners, culled largely from the decimated studio system, as a commercial force and a statement of classic Hollywood values (however debased and corrupt) in the face of the emergence of non-star types like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Burstyn and, yes, Gene Hackman. Only the names have changed to keep the percentage of the budget designated to the talent at a minimum. However, whether created by CGI or in a studio tank, the wave abides.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Had I not revisited Don Siegel’s dusty, nail-hard crime thriller Charley Varrick just the night before seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times, it stands to reason that I probably would not have found myself thinking about it midway through the Taiwanese director’s film. After all, Siegel’s tale of morally ambivalent “heroes,” scabrously misanthropic villains, and the various levels of grime and corruption to be waded through and scraped off on the way toward accidentally absconding with three-quarters of a million dollars in laundered mob money would seem to have little in common with Hou’s deliberately paced, exquisitely mounted collection of three love stories, each from a different time, each told in a manner most rewardingly compared to the elliptical style of a short story on the page. And yet, as the first episode of Three Times, “A Time of Love,” began to wrap itself around me, rich in the atmospheric imagery of muggy, rain-soaked days, thick with romantic longing in every image of roadside signs and empty streets and hushed pool parlors alive only with the sounds of clacking balls, I began to marvel at how effortlessly Hou had created such a tactile, living landscape through which his two characters are allowed to move and breathe and touch and feel. That feeling led me to ponder other instances in which a director has so casually, yet so effectively rendered locations in such a manner that they almost feel like they could be breathed in through the lungs, locations reflective of the mood of a given piece and even the rocky, unforgiving landscape that makes up the characters themselves.

Thanks to that lucky proximity of having seen it 24 hours earlier, Charley Varrick leapt to mind as a prime example. When it was released in 1973 by Universal, no one seemed likely to pronounce claims of artistic integrity for what was perceived as an efficient, brutal crime programmer, no more, no less. But seen 33 years later its sturdy, intelligent design couldn’t be more apparent. As a vehicle for Walter Matthau, who would continue the dismantling of his status as strictly a comic actor begun here in films like The Laughing Policeman and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, it’s an excellent showcase for the star’s ability to project the electrical charges crackling behind his hangdog personage as Varrick attempts to wiggle out from underneath the greasy, bloody thumb of an increasingly angry and impatient crime syndicate, personified by Joe Don Baker’s grinning hit man and John Vernon’s frighteningly insinuating big boss. And because of Don Siegel’s unblinking camera eye, his sense of graphic continuity, and his insistence that the places where the chase for Charley play out are just as important for the mood that can be drawn out of them naturally, from their simple existence as landscape, as they are in conveying the ineffable sense of the existential net closing in around him, Charley Varrick’s shadow is a long one, particularly for a movie that isn’t talked about any more frequently than it is. Recent efforts like Brian Helgeland’s Payback and Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest have reached back through the smoke and wreckage of American action films, films that once crowded American movie houses and have come, as Mission: Impossible 3 most currently evidences, to a creative dead end, back to Siegel’s cold shot to the heart, where they have found a welcome place for their own curdled spirits to set up home.

On this particular viewing last week, the crucial importance of those locations to the realization of the bleak comedy and arid cynicism of the movie’s moral ambiguities hit home particularly hard. The template of the movie is set by Siegel’s attention to the details surrounding the bloody holdup that kicks the movie off, staged within the simple, brick construct of the Las Cruces, New Mexico bank, and outside that bank, along the dusty side streets of the town where children play in the unyielding sun and run for cover once the bullets start to fly. Outside that bank, the heat is palpable within the car that Charley sits and waits outside the bank, along with his partner Harman (Andy Robinson) and their getaway driver, Charley’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), even as they sit shaded by the trees draped around the bank’s front entrance. And in the aftermath of the getaway chase, which will result in Nadine’s death, Charley and Harman desert the car and don the gear of Charley’s legitimate business— white crop-duster overalls—and make off in Charley’s van, which bears the legend, “Charley Varrick, Last of the Independents.” But they’re stopped by a state trooper on his way to assist in the already-finished chase, and Siegel uses the moment to not only create suspense as to whether Charley and Harman will be recognized, but also to allow us some breathing space after that intense chase, space that we can use to again breathe in the harsh, tactile, literally roadside ambience. I swear I could almost feel the gravel crunching under my feet and the hot air running across my face in this scene. The feel of sagebrush and dust and the foreboding and oppressiveness built into these wide-open spaces is highlighted, subtly, in this sequence, and its methods are carried through the entire film, whether the movie is “luxuriating” in the specifics of Charley’s trailer-park hideaway, a cathouse where Baker chastely spends the night as he moves in for the kill, the stuffy, under-lit interior of a photographer’s shop run by the late Sheree North, who invests an insinuating sexuality into casual betrayal, or in fascinating found-documentary glimpses of the rundown south end of South Virginia Street (specifically, the immediate area surrounding Fitzpatrick’s Casino) in Reno, Nevada, a city which seems forever tied to the seedy vitality in evidence there when this film was shot in 1972.

In Charley Varrick, the prickly, dusty landscape and its ambience of indifference is inescapably tied to the film’s crisp visual sense, its terse rhythms and its unforgiving and illuminating approach to character and storytelling. Dismissed as simple mass entertainment by even its most sympathetic reviewers in 1973, Don Siegel’s movie has emerged as a model of efficiency and expressiveness, through its influence and its vigor, after 33 years of less-talented directors thrashing at the hide, and eventually the skeletal frame, of the modern action film, where money and excess and blind demographic pursuits have yielded fewer and fewer artistic returns. Charley Varrick, surely a masterpiece of sun-bleached, Technicolor film noir, has the desert, its prickliness, its fever, its dusty insistence, in its blood and its soul, and the chill of the nighttime shadow of its influence and its reputation is only likely to grow longer, deeper, more resonant as each year passes and each new hotshot director tries to outdo the kind of terse, economical style in which its playfully perverse and formally profound pleasures are rooted.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film may be called Three Times, but for Los Angeles filmgoers who’ve actually heard of it and, even more unlikely, actually want to see it, it’s more like two weeks. After a one-week opening engagement at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills (whose auditorium was nowhere near full when I saw the movie last Saturday night), it switched over to Laemmle’s second-run Fairfax Cinemas, where it is down to two shows daily for the next three days and not likely to see the light of a projector lamp past this coming Thursday. All that, and Three Times still will double the length of the run of the only other Hou picture to screen commercially in Los Angeles, Millennium Mambo, which had a one-week run in 2004, three years after the movie was originally seen overseas.

Not being an overly experienced veteran of Hou’s cinema (I’ve seen only Millennium Mambo and Flowers of Shanghai, both on DVD), I wanted to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see one of the director’s unhurried, visually resplendent films on the big screen. Yes, there is a Hong Kong DVD floating around out there, and no doubt one will be available soon through Green Cine, Nicheflix or perhaps even Netflix. These services all have a good selection of other Hou films available as well. But if you can possibly get to the corner of Fairfax and Beverly this week, I highly recommend seeing Three Times in a theatrical setting. This is a movie that is not going to do anything for audiences who define cinematic excitement primarily by summer blockbusters like Mission: Impossible 3. But to surrender to the tactile, emotional and observational pleasures to be had by stepping into the vivid, hushed and cluttered scenes framed by Hou and his brilliantly sensitive cinematographer, Pin Bing Lee, is to experience a kind of excitement that is far removed from a THX Dolby Stereo thrill ride—it is the thrill of feeling the hairs on the back of your neck stand up at the sight of two hands in the moment when they first touch and their fingers tentatively intertwine; the twinge of heartache over a silent, unrequited love; or the dulled charge of erotic fixations and confusion experienced by two lovers lost in and gliding through the chatter and insistent, ambient noise of a modern city. It is the thrill, in other words, of being in the hands of a master director, one who knows that some of life’s (and cinema’s) most moving dramas can be charted among the slightest of seismic shifts in mood, in sound, in the positioning of two beautiful actors as they look into each other’s eyes, or as they look away at a crucial moment, the angle of one glance deflecting off of another, another connection missed.

Three Times is structured in three segments—three love stories set in three different eras, each evoking hazy melancholy filtered through pop culture, political oppression reduced down to an abstract reflection at a fundamental human level, and the ways in which communication is thwarted, through the technology that is meant to enhance it, or through the sociological patterns that set people apart and challenge them to span that gap in order to make sense of their own feelings. Hou’s conceit, that the lovers in each segment are played by the same actors—Shu Qi (So Close, The Transporter, Millennium Mambo) and Chang Chen (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2046)—is a transporting one, allowing us to luxuriate in their beauty as mere movie presences and to compare their behavior and responses from one segment to the next as a way of charting our own responses to their characters. The segments are perhaps most simply and resonantly experienced, however, as tales that reflect the many ways in which people experience falling and being in love, and also that slowed-down sensation of perception that often signals when the hook has been set. Each story is set in a different period in Taiwanese history, and each is tonally and stylistically quite different from the next. However, each is still imbued with Hou’s probing long takes, the heightened sense that each edit, each shift in perspective, means something, even if we can’t articulate what while we’re experiencing it, and an alarming sensory sensitivity to the details and pleasures and even slight claustrophobia of the places where the stories unfold.

The first, “A Time of Love,” is set largely in a billiard parlor in 1966-- the jukebox plays “Smoke gets In Your Eyes” more than once, and that is partly a joke, but it also lays the emotional foundation, grounded in the very potent American pop culture seeping into Taiwanese culture at the time, for the understated personal drama that will follow. Shu Qi is a woman who works in the parlor and catches the eye of a conscripted soldier, played by Chang Chen, on the night before he is to report for service. When he returns on a brief pass, he discovers that she has moved on to another parlor in another town and decides to spend the rest of his time before returning to his military assignment tracking her down. Hou’s delicate framing inside the parlor, and the sounds of the balls clacking together and flying apart on the tables (often heard, but not seen), prepare within us a hyperawareness of environmental textures that is then reflected in the soldier’s open gaze as he travels the countryside, drinking in his freedom in search of this woman whom he barely knows, registering every element of his surroundings, taking not a whit nor a whiff of it for granted. The sequence in which we follow the soldier through the various villages is extraordinary in the way Hou’s lush compositions are particularly tactile without seeming overly decorative, obviously or oppressively engineered for effect. There is something of the sense of connection to the concept of place, to the importance of specificity toward place and time, at work that reminds me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, even though realizing a haunted, fevered, erotically driven piece of folklore is hardly Hou’s aim here. Instead, it is the soldier’s newfound desire that propels him, and it also propels the way that Hou allows us to experience the world—not through the soldier’s eyes, exactly, but certainly informed by his kind of quietly soaring perceptions. When the two finally do meet again, in another parlor, in a steam-filled noodle shop, and then finally, exquisitely, at a quiet bus station, there is a sweetness to the unarticulated joy in their eyes upon seeing each other again and spending time together that is a marvel to behold.

“A Time for Freedom” takes place in 1922, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. Perhaps the most unfulfilling of the three segments (by design, certainly, as much as through its lingering emotional residue), Hou revisits the tone and texture of Flowers of Shanghai, only in miniature. Shu is, in this time, a courtesan to a figure of local importance who strikes up a friendship with a man (Chang) who is active is the Taiwanese resistance to the occupation. As her feelings for the man begin to become much stronger, she begins to realize that those feelings of love for him are inextricably bound to a yearning she suspects, as do we, will never be satisfied—the freedom to live life, as this man does, according to one’s beliefs, rather than as a kept woman in a lovely cage. Hou not only reaches back in time for the fundamental elements of his story here, but he also mounts the segments as a true silent film. Dialogue is rendered sparsely, with accompanying intertitles, and the only sound we hear is a piano, not playing accompaniment as one might have heard in a silent cinema at the time, but a concerto that aptly reflects and expands upon the emotional churning that this woman is struggling so hard to suppress. If the first segment was Chang’s to occupy and inform and breathe life into, then “A Time for Freedom” is Shu’s moment to shine, and she does so magnificently. Known to audiences, Taiwanese and American alike, mostly for her beauty and athletic ability, she is riveting in her stillness here, and each glance, toward the man she’ll never have, toward the wedding party of another courtesan who is about to embark on the kind of life she so desperately wants for herself, carries with it surprising impact. Hou places her at the center of a startling amount of lovely clutter in the majority of scenes here, and it’s thrilling to witness the magnetic calm that surrounds and radiates from her at the center of the frame, even if the slightly claustrophobic surroundings aren’t exactly frenetic themselves. Shu’s quiet, piercing sadness is as tender and eloquent as the best film acting can be, in ironic counterpoint to her character’s inability to break through the shield of serious purpose surrounding her intended, or her own natural tendency toward stoicism and denial. And Hou’s choice to connect this silence of desire to the formal silence of a cinema of the past, of the time of his story, is intensely moving. When, in the last shot, he breaks form and allows synch sound during a shot where only the subtle crinkling of paper can be heard, it’s the soundtrack of our senses being heightened, of being unknowingly prepared for the film’s most startling shock cut, one that will propel us over nearly a century in 1/24th of a second, from imposed quiet to inescapable cacophony.

“A Time for Youth” is the film’s final segment, set in modern Taipei and following, as the director did in Millennium Mambo, the meandering patterns, connections and missed connections among a trio of lovers: a man (Chang) who works at a photo shop, a bisexual woman with epilepsy who becomes increasingly fixated on her relationship with him, to the detriment of her relationship with her obsessive, possibly suicidal lover (Su-jen Liao). For the first time, Hou’s lovers are allowed movement, they are allowed physical connections, and they have sex. But, like those billiard balls in 1966 clacking against each other and glancing off in random directions, these people spend the time they have together still reaching, groping for some meaning to the connections they do make with each others. But just as many of those connections are missed: Hou reveals, in haunting close-ups, how often the devices these young people use to communicate with each other (cell phones, e-mails, cameras, even the equipment used by Shu’s character to perform in her rock band) are subtly insufficient at allowing true communication to take place. Hou’s rendering of this theme is not condescending or of a pooh-pooh nature, as it might be in the hands of some other director who might seize upon the opportunity to make some grand statement about the closed-off quality of society as a whole. Fortunately, Hou is not working in a broad societal equation here, and he hasn’t a Chayefskian bone in his body. His vision is focused on the specifics of these quite unfocused, unspecific, unmoored people. And yet the revelation of this observation about technology is how it serves to illuminate, in retrospect, the same theme of thwarted communication which threads through the previous two segments, even though the technology which affords him the means to approach the idea in “Youth” can obviously not be present in the previous two times. This final segment is probably the one that will leave audiences most “unsatisfied,” as it reaches no obvious narrative or thematic conclusions about characters that might seem at times too self-centered and unaware to be much concerned about. But it seems safe to assume that the very uncertainty the audience feels might also be the point as we’re left with a vision of these two lovers, played so seductively by these two beautiful actors, speeding aimlessly around the city on a motorcycle, going nowhere fast and not much minding.

As the curtain comes down (if you’re lucky enough to see it in a place where such things still happen), we’re left with the speeding motorcycle and the blank looks of those riders and the ennui in their eyes, and with the noise of Taipei ringing in our ears. But it’s easy to recall that Three Times itself, though, is at its center quiet, heedful of its own rhythms and those of Shu Qi and Chang Chen. It is a beautiful, lived-in, expressively constructed and visually passionate film, one that really should be seen in a theater, but which will be seductive and enthralling and inviting even on DVD.

A final word: Speaking as a heterosexual male, it seems to me, based solely on her work with Hou Hsiao-hsien in Millennium Mambo and the “A Time for Youth” segment of Three Times, that Shu Qi, this seductive, talented actress-- a huge star in Asia but barely known here-- has done more for the art and the profoundly erotic possibilities of smoking in movies than anyone since Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Perhaps Chang Chen has the same effect on women and gay men-- I don’t know. I should emphasize that I’m a nonsmoker, and I have a general distaste for the way tobacco smells, even coming off of a person after the cigarette has been smoked. That said, I’m usually indifferent to seeing cigarettes and smoking portrayed in films (though I could never get worked up about banning smoking in films or altering older or classic films to excise evidence of it for fear of unduly influencing our youth).

But having seen Millennium Mambo, I had a sneaking suspicion the third segment of Three Times was going to be a real Shu Qi nicotine fest, and I was not wrong. And I was also not sad about it. I’m sure I’m either being extremely obvious here or opening myself up to a boatload of Freudian analysis/ridicule, but I’ve always been susceptible to the sensual qualities of beautiful women smoking, particularly in the movies. It’s a safe way, I suppose, of experiencing the erotic enhancement of a woman’s allure that smoking often provides without having to also experience the unpleasant olfactory realities and health hazards that come along with the activity.

Specifically, there is a scene in “A Time for Youth,” a post-coital moment in which the actress holds a fluorescent light up to a wall covered with her lover’s photographs and smokes, basking in the residual pleasure of their encounter, while looking at the photos. Eventually he comes up behind her and initiates another session of lovemaking, and she drapes her lithe body over his, both of them lit by the harsh blue-white light and surrounded by the lingering cloud of cigarette smoke. This one scene is all the proof anyone would ever need of that true eroticism in films is often attained without graphic or pornographic depictions of sex-- in fact, those elements may actually be detrimental to the success, as erotica, of scenes that look at sex through the prism of the late-night Cinemax aesthetic. And central to the erotic power of the scene in Hou’s movie, in my book anyway, is Shu Qi, subtly undulating in a private moment and smoking like a very sexy chimney. There is no question that she is one of the great smoking beauties in the history of cinema.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


A few days ago, within a post featuring several links to articles and information I felt were worth passing along, I linked to Jeremiah Kipp’s revealing interview of Film Freak Central’s resident film critic Walter Chaw. I’m enough of a film criticism geek that any time a writer whose reviews I enjoy (not the same, as I’m sure you’re aware, as always agreeing with his conclusions) gets an opportunity to speak extemporaneously in an interview situation, I get excited. So much so that I posted the link before I got a chance to read it, confident in its worthiness based on my familiarity with Kipp’s writing, the place where the interview resides (Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door), and Chaw’s own “chops,” as Kipp describes Chaw’s writing talent in the introduction to his piece. Somehow, I also felt comfortable in terming the interview “fantastic,” sure that it would be, I guess, fantastically entertaining to read, before having actually read it. Perhaps not an offense worthy of a Jayson Blair, but certainly a meaningless characterization, especially in the context of recommending the interview to others.

Kipp, in inroducing Chaw, had this to say:

“Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine's depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He's incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the House, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bulletproof Monk, xXx: State of the Union, Last Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.”

I’ve read those reviews, and a lot of others signed by Walter Chaw, and his current review of Poseidon is in the same vein—an awful lot of energy expended on trashing or otherwise deconstructing a piece of work that seems too slight or inconsequential in comparison to the amount of bile generated in the mocking of it. However, what shocked me in reading the interview was the insistent thread of vitriol and exhaustion that seemed to characterize Chaw’s attitudes toward films, fellow critics (most of which are apparently as deserving of hatred as the lowliest junket whore) and those who disagree with his withering observations. I feel like there’s less of that obstinance, the my-way-or-the-highway stance, on display even in the most condescending reviews of his regarding films I enjoy or hold in very high esteem than what I found roiling through many of the statements he makes in this interview.

To start, personally I’d agree with Chaw that, say, Brett Ratner is probably not a director I’d want to hold up as a shining example of an artist working in American cinema. But, also just as personally, I feel like I’ve grown past needing to read reviews, or hear reviewers, that think it’s a badge of blunt integrity to refer to a movie, even one as obvious and dull as Red Dragon, as a “piece of shit.” In conversation, okay, whatever. But in published conversation, that kind of closed-off, reductive, tough-talking provocateur noise just reminds me too much of every collegiate film writer I’ve ever read who has never grown out of his desire to put down people and films just so he can see how red he can get people’s faces to turn.

Sillier still, when I hear Chaw, or any critic, start going off about how alone they are on the landscape, tilting at the windmills of Hollywood’s bad taste with no one getting their back, it makes me weep, all right, but with tears of laughter. In my own brief comments before the link I posted, I praised Chaw for countering claims that he was an elitist snob through his raves for films like Batman Begins, V for Vendetta and, most importantly for me, Peter Jackson’s King Kong. So imagine my own face blushing just a bit when I read this:

“I’m not making a play for ‘man of the people’ here, but I agree, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus a pretty depressing 73% of the time. I think what gets people is that I’m not all that equivocal about dislike of a film and, more, will actually say if something is repugnant about a picture’s message, or if it patronizes its audience. Folks don’t like to be called—even if it’s just by the association of their affection for a picture—racist, misogynistic, dimwits with retarded critical faculties. Can’t say that I blame them, but unless they’re willing and able to frame a cogent response to my outrage about some of that shit, they’re just bolstering my sad, hermetic little beliefs about the kinds of people who get a real charge out of North Country and Million Dollar Baby.”

The trouble is, and maybe I'm wrong, but I get the feeling that Chaw would probably hold any such attempts at a cogent response in contempt anyway for the writer’s daring to put themselves on his level of discourse, in much the same way he himself feels dissed by writers who have much more visibility and perks and not nearly the talent. (And is yet another dig at people for their variance with his tastes really necessary? If it’s so goddamn important to note them, then let’s hear a little more about those “sad, hermetic beliefs” so we can decide for ourselves just how sad they really are. I know a lot of film writers, professionals and bloggers, who just don’t have time for this kind of game-playing, who don’t think, say, Million Dollar Baby is much of a film, but who would never harbor contempt for me because I do.)

Clearly, Chaw thinks he’s better than most everyone out there writing on the Internet. And who’s to say he isn’t? But, forgive me for championing a little modesty (perhaps that’s what gets you eaten up in the dog-eat-dog world Chaw occupies in Denver, Colorado, where he is based) when I suggest that maybe that’s an evaluation best left to others, or perhaps posterity, not the writer himself. What comes through Chaw’s comments even more clearly, though, is a gnawing anger at being left at the kids’ table—he’d much rather be at that earlier screening with just one or two other critics, both of whom, if I’m calculating correcty, he probably has just as much contempt for as “the entitlement freeloaders, the pass-rats (and) the other Internet guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste” who he ends up jostling elbows with over their shared cupholders. It’s telling that Chaw offers no solution for the problem of the Online Film Critics Circle allowing anybody with a mouse and an attitude into their membership, no thoughts on what should constitute acceptable criteria for admittance. It’s easier, and I suspect more amenable to venting steam, to recycle tired platitudes about the lack of standards rampant in the world of blogging.

And the Internet critic is obviously enjoying lobbing a bomb or two into the arena of film bloggers in Kipp’s interview. Yet he can barely be moved to draw an distinction between the entertainment gossip/Ain’t-It-Cool-News school of writing and other more serious attempts to frame film criticism within this as yet still wide, nebulous and ever-shifting virtual world. Chaw is undoubtedly aware of the many scholarly film sites available, and he may well have given them his blessing. But how he can maintain such an attitude toward bloggers when he admits, in responding to some not-so-positive reaction to his comments in the section posted directly under the interview, more than a passing familiarity with sites like Filmbrain’s Like Anna Karina’s Sweater?

(Filmbrain himself, in a response full of wry annoyance and sharp observations about Chaw’s sour grapes, finds that while Chaw may have a legitimate beef with the way Internet critics like himself still find themselves misperceived and disrespected, “instead of offering up something constructive, he turns it into a pissing contest by creating a hierarchy as a means of distancing himself from the rest of us. That Chaw has an editor at Film Freak Central is all well and good, but why does that necessitate resorting to the beyond-tired cliché of… bloggers as 'guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste?'" He also pointedly wonders if Chaw imagines himself as “God’s lonely critic,” and Chaw, on the Film Freak Central blog recently, may have provided the answer, writing about his experience at a screening of Pixar’s Cars:

“I did have the pleasure of sitting in front of some yahoo with press credentials who laughed heartily every couple of minutes whether or not there was a joke: the studio’s gotta get better at planting their ringers. Wonder if the summer of NASCAR (with Will Ferrell’s racing flick coming up in a couple of months) will leave me further out of the proverbial loop. What’s disturbing to me is that lately I’ve had the opportunity to be more in contact with the “average” audience member and the suspicion that I’ve been harboring that I’m way out of whack in terms of the popular taste has been brought home to me in a real personal kind of way. Seems like I should wear it like a badge of honor, right, but it really just makes me feel sort of melancholy and lonesome.”

As a friend of mine put it after reading this paragraph (in terms that Chaw would undoubtedly find to be an insufficient response from anyone but himself), give me a fucking break.

Frustratingly, there’s truth to that kind of power-tiering based on the visibility of one’s media outlet, but Chaw undermines his own quest for validation by coming off simply like a petulant brat who isn’t getting the kind of cookies he really wants. There’s a desperation to some of Chaw’s comments here, particularly in regard to how he perceives that he is perceived by the print media critics who have little respect for writers who don’t have a paper to scribble on. Yet he reserves just as much venom, if not more, for his peers on the Internet, 99% of whom he’s pretty sure he would support banning from advance screening based on their lack of talent as writers and observers. “Of course, I don’t think that I deserve to be lumped into that ghetto,” Chaw states. “[But] it still burns, and it gets worse as time goes on... knowing that there was a better way to see this film just a few days earlier with just one or two other critics in the auditorium.” (Does anyone recall that Pauline Kael used to go out of her way to see movies with paying audiences?)

Speaking of whom, Chaw also eagerly provides the requisite knocks on the critical establishment, an exercise which wouldn’t be so annoying if it weren’t obvious that Chaw really feels like he’s hurling sharp daggers instead of dull platitudes. He likes Andrew Sarris insofar as his auteurist approach opens up discussion of films, and claims the critic’s methods to be useful as they can be applied to Chaw’s own aesthetic and approach.

But after endorsing Pauline Kael’s claim that film criticism is for him, as it was for her, an autobiographical process, he makes sure that we know he doesn’t buy that whole mythology surrounding the late critic. “I don’t like Kael, by the way,” just in case anyone was ready to mistake this fiercely independent voice for one of those fawning Paulettes. “I think she was a brilliant writer,” he expands, “but a mean person, a borderline personality, and a shaky critic;” he also later describes her “gut-and-fuck philosophy.” I’m assuming now that Chaw knew Kael personally, though he never says whether or not this is true; how else to get away with a blithe toss-off about her being “a mean person and a borderline personality,” particularly without explaining, true or not, what exactly these descriptions had to do with her abilities as a critic? (And what the hell is a borderline personality, by the way? And what the hell hell is a “gut-and-fuck philosophy”? These are the kinds of terms tossed off in interviews that are meant to make the spouter-offer sound knowing and tough and not-to-be-messed-with, but unfortunately only do so when the spouter-offer is surrounded by a bunch of like-minded, and probably stoned, pals on the floor of one’s freshman college dorm room.)

He goes on: “She (Kael) did have a way of articulating ephemera like performance and fashion, though. But ultimately, I’m not certain her bully tactics and popularization of film criticism did anybody any favors.”

First of all, count me shocked to discover that performance in film can be characterized as ephemera. (This truly will be news to anyone who still delights in the popular artistry of, for example, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night-- at 72 years and counting, that’s some pretty stout ephemera!)

But I’m hardly shocked at all that a female critic would be concerned with articulating fashion and trends and other quickly evaporating elements of film at the expense of all the other more important elements that her male counterparts are wise enough to prize. And is it slightly ironic that a writer like Chaw, who so values bluntness and taking no prisoners when it comes to articulating his own experience with a film, would be so concerned about what he perceives as another’s “bully tactics”? Finally, his lament about Kael popularizing film criticism would be funny, in light of all his other complaints about the pathetic qualities of those critics in the print media, if it weren’t such a sober-faced inverse of Groucho’s joke about never wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.

Roger Ebert, being the far easier target, one that almost all would probably agree is a mere shadow of his former self as a film critic, gets thrown under Chaw’s bus too. “What a gasbag (Ebert) has become… commenting proudly about his love of tits to his recollection of last year spent reading the works of Willa Cather,” recounts Chaw of Ebert’s recent appearance at the Conference of World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado. Call me a yahoo, Walter, but I’m not sure I trust anybody who can’t allow for an appreciation of Willa Cather (or any other writer) to coexist with an appreciation of tits. There’s something fundamentally dishonest about that, in my view. And I would also suggest that even though Ebert is pretty watered down these days, he still has insights to offer on occasion for those who are willing to look for them.

Jeremiah Kipp’s fascinating interview with this irascible subject is just as good and illuminating as I assumed it would be when I posted the link to it, and a lot of what Chaw has to say about film is, of course, intrinsically interesting and well-observed. What else might we expect from a critic whose writing typically displays a contentious love for film and a sharp and cogent way of articulting that love? The interview is also, courtesy of that subject, a good deal more aggravating than I suspected it would be. But Kipp gets points for directing the conversation to fruitful places and, happily, even challenging one of Chaw’s toss-offs-- at one point Chaw proclaims of graphic novels, “They’re just bound storyboards, aren’t they?” to which Kipp retorts, “I don’t believe that at all. They’re two radically different mediums.” (The critic, momentarily stunned that his questioner isn’t just mindlessly eating up whatever he puts forth, offers no real counterpoint.) The end result of the interview is, however, strangely rather disturbing-- a self-portrait of a critic who craves the power of influence and recognition in a world rapidly shrinking away from any kind of respect for the concept of honest film criticism, a film critic trapped in a system that makes him feel powerless but who writes because he has the desire, the need to express himself about a medium he finds so challenging and conflicted and engaging. It’s here that we discover, even if Chaw does not, that he may have a lot more in common with do-it-yourself film bloggers than he might like to admit. Chaw gets the penultimate word:

“Most people who hate me haven’t read more than one—if that—review of mine in its entirety. When I look at what I write--and I seldom have to, thank god--I hope that what I’m seeing there is a real, throbbing outrage at films that are out to do harm and, on the other side, a real live joy at films that feed me. Stuff that’s just out to make money off of easy stereotypes and nakedly shill to robotically-demarcated demographics of imaginary people– and looping back around, here, offering up all this feckless garbage to the blind eyes of the vast majority of the critics in lofty positions that I (if no one else) hope are manning the gates—makes me exhausted.”

Jeremiah Kipp’s interview with Walter Chaw, “Keep Up, or Get Out Of the Way,” is a portrait of a very entertaining and intelligent critic who, during the course of the piece, ends up coming off like a driven, near-burnt-out, smart-as-hell and ever-so-slightly paranoid, well, gasbag.

(If you haven’t yet, you can read the interview and the ensuing commentary here.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Well, against all odds, I did make it into Beverly Hills to see Three Times Saturday night. I even got free parking! Despite some faint hope of being joined at the Laemmle Music Hall by the Mysterious Adrian Betamax, I saw the Hou Hsiao-hsien film by myself. But that’s okay—it’s a nearly two-and-a-half hour movie in which Shu Qi and/or Chang Chen are on screen for the entire running time. As photographed by Hou’s regular cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, these are not actors that are difficult to look at, and Hou’s leisurely pace allows them and Pin’s wondrously textural imagery to wash over the viewer with sublime abandon. Sorry, M.A.B., he said with a wink, but what better company could I have asked for? I hope to have some thoughts on that film, and a couple others I saw over the weekend up and ready to read in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, answers to Professor Van Helsing’s quiz keep pouring in, largely generated by all the new exposure afforded this humble blog by fellow blogger, critic and new friend Jim Emerson. In fact, there are so many lists of answers posted and linked to in the comments column of the quiz that I’m going to have to take steps to rethink my approach to the traditional post-quiz answer roundup. Back in the days when getting 15 responses was more than I expected, putting together a roundup which touched on just all about all the answers in one way or another was a doable feat and one I looked forward to. But with the Van Helsing quiz, not only did I trump my own roundup by getting overly excited by the first batch of responses, after I turned that I post in I watched at as nearly 20 more flowed through the gates. And the gates are still open (hint, hint, M.A.B., psaga!) for more. I am now thoroughly intimidated at the prospect of trying to create a readable digest from so many responses and giving such a high percentage of them their due. I think I’ve come up with a solution that won’t take two weeks for me to put together, or two weeks for you to read, but only time will tell if I’ve succeeded. Success or not, it’s coming just around the bend.

There are other things I’ve got on my mind and on my plate, original material-wise. But the Internet is such a vast and wonderful resource that I just can’t help but put together another set of juicy links to tide you over until I can get my own act together again. I really do love linking to all these great articles and blogs—I discovered most of these pieces through the same method, courtesy of others who took the time to post them on their sites. But there is only one Green Cine Daily, and not only could not I possibly compete with David Hudson and his comprehensive list of daily links, I wouldn’t want to. He’s just too good at it. That said, he provides an excellent example for those of us who, like the old man played by Jack Gilford in the Cracker Jacks commercial, are into sharing. A couple of these I was directed to by David and Green Cine Daily. Others were pointed out to me by friends or other blogs. But regardless of where I heard about them, I want you to hear about them too. And now some more sharing…

Yes, there are a few of us who are eagerly anticipating the release of Robert Altman’s latest film, A Prairie Home Companion, starring Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan, among many others. The film recently closed the San Francisco Film Festival and has been getting good-to-very good reviews as it is has made the rounds over the past couple of months. But one of the big stories about Prairie’s production was the on-set presence of Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, who served as an officially credited “stand-by director” during the shoot. Of course, this led to all kinds of speculation that Altman was on his last legs, that he was expected to keel over at any minute—the supposition being, I suppose, that in the event of Altman’s incapacitation or collapse, Anderson would pick up the megaphone and keep the cameras rolling as they hauled the famous director’s wheezing body off in an ambulance. But there’s nothing like a memorable, and relatively vigorous, walk-on at the Oscars to accept a lifetime achievement award, and to reveal a heart transplant that took place 10 years ago, to set people’s heads straight. Of course, the real story all along is that Altman, being healthy but also 80 years old at the time the movie was filming, was a bit of a risk for the insurance company due to his advanced age, and as a contractual precaution they insisted on someone to be present just in case. Anderson, a friend of Altman’s whose own films pay testimony to the elder director’s profound influence, got the call, and he talks about it with Henry Rollins this week on IFC’s The Henry Rollins Show. The episode originally aired last Saturday night and will be repeated two more times, this coming Thursday, May 18, at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. PST. And speaking of good stuff on IFC, from a completely personal perspective, of course, the ever-eclectic channel is offering, among many others things, a chance to catch up with John Sayles’ rarely seen Matewan (it shows Wednesday, May 17, at 12 noon and again Thursday, May 18, at 4:30 a.m., and several times again throughout the month); David Thowy’s largely unseen undersea thriller Below (which was vastly underrated by those who did see it), which shows Wednesday, May 17 at 10:00 p.m. (and throughout the rest of the month); and, though I may regret it, William Lustig’s notorious Maniac starring and co-scripted by the late, great character actor (and character face) Joe Spinell. This scalp-and-splatter classic, which I’ve never had the nerve to sit through, despite the presence of the lovely Caroline Munro, screens throughout the month as well. You can check IFC’s May schedule for further dates and times on these and many more titles, most of which will probably far more worth your time than, say, Maniac.

The ever-amazing Tom Sutpen has done it again. It was only a few months ago that he posted a terrific audio recording of Pauline Kael reading her infamous anti-auteur theory “Circles and Squares” essay to a rapt audience. Now Tom has added another rare, irresistible recording to match the first one in significance and sheer fun. The post is called ”When FilmCritics Gather”, and it’s a real doozy—on the same stage, Dwight MacDonald, whom Tom, in the delightful text he writes to provide some context for the audio, describes as the “former Partisan Review editor and recidivist Trotskyite,” Pauline Kael, just before her appearance on the national stage and around the time (1963) when she was programming a Berkeley art-house and enraging listeners on KPFA Pacifica Radio, and famously vicious film/theater critic John Simon, whom Tom says was once “rather unkindly” described by a friend as “the Slobodan Miloševic of arts criticism (unkind and also unfair; to the best of my knowledge, Miloševic was never heard to exclaim 'Gays in the theater! I can't wait until AIDS kills them all!').” And that’s just Tom’s lead-up! The recording is in two parts and runs about 73 minutes in toto, and I can’t wait to get a chance to stop sampling bits and pieces and just sit down and listen to it from start to finish. It should be a fascinating document from a time when film criticism was about to reach popularity commensurate to the seriousness with which film had begun to be taken in the late ‘60s, a time when film criticism had yet to be taken for granted or, as it is increasingly in our day, pooh-poohed as being irrelevant and overly intellectual by the “I-just-want-to-be-entertained” crowd, or even out-and-out threatened with extinction by the gathering storm cloud of entertainment coverage and junket “reviews.”

Speaking of terrific modern film criticism, which roughly translates into a film critic who takes film and writing as seriously as the old fogies (see above) did while never losing touch with his own youthful vitality and rigorous standards, Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door has finally posted Jeremiah Kipp’s fantastic interview with one of film criticism’s best-kept secrets, Film Freak Central’s Walter Chaw. I’ve read and treasured Chaw’s acerbic wit and his no-holds-barred approach for years—he champions art films, which gets him branded an elitist and a snob by readers who don’t want to bother following him down those paths, but who also conveniently ignore the raves he’s given to arty fare like Spider-Man 2, V for Vendetta and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. (Chaw’s review of Kong was a rare occasion when I thought one of the writers I love to read on a weekly basis “got it,” who didn’t roast the movie based almost solely on its length, who understood what Jackson was going for, where he was coming from, and went with him all the way. His review sent me into the theater on a cloud of expectations which were handily met.) But, as Kipp says in his intro to the interview, “when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw's, you don’t want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw's approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, ‘Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion.’” Chaw has those and more. Enjoy his talk with Kipp here.

Frequent SLIFR commenter and fellow blogger Robert Hubbard is back from a film shoot and today alone sent me two bits of information that I have to pass along. First, for those whose completism re David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is not quite complete, Robert directs me (that is, us) to Not Coming to a Theater Near You’s Guide to Twin Peaks, which, in addition to its stunning page design, provides links to detailed essays (with accompanying unsettling screen grabs) for each episode of the much-too-short-lived ABC TV series. Just the thing to get that fire walkin’ with me again.

Robert also alerts me to an upcoming event that will be of interest to SLIFR readers in the New York City area, specifically Brooklyn, coming in June. In the wake of the passing of director Richard Fleischer, film critic Elliot Stein will host an evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of his “Cinemachat” series, which will focus on Fleischer and his films. Stein will screen Fleischer’s well-regarded crime picture Violent Saturday, starring Victor Mature, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, J. Carroll Naish and a host of others, in July. And then, on June 14, Stein will host a very rare big-screen presentation of Fleischer’s notorious 1975 drama Mandingo. (Here’s yet another point of view on the film that may pique your interest in seeing it on the silver screen.) This is the sort of event that makes me wish I could afford plane tickets at the drop of a hat. But if you’re in Brooklyn in June, consider yourself enlightened. (Check on the full Cinemachat schedule here.)

If you’re a subscriber to the Los Angeles Times, you’re probably already aware of David L. Ulin’s consideration of above-the-title screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. But if you’re not, you may want to be, not only so you can argue with Ulin as to whether Kaufman is the greatest writer of his generation or not, but also so you can read his sublime description of a child’s birthday party uncomfortably attended by himself and his wife which unexpectedly slips into Kaufman territory itself.

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet myself, but fellow blogger Andy Horbal directs us to a piece written by Armond White for Slate entitled ”Dear Wes Anderson, Why Does It Take You So Long to Make a Movie?”. Love him, hate him, or love to get exasperated by him (I’m all three), White’s take on Anderson and a whole crop of filmmakers he brands American Eccentrics should be well worth the reading time. Horbal, by the way, also offers up some further observations and links re the recent dismissal of Jami Bernard and, as it turns out, Michael Wilmington too.

Finally, courtesy of Anne Thompson comes word of an addictive new film rating site called Criticker. Thanks, Anne! But really, these bastards! Don’t they know I already spend too much time rating movies on Netflix? Doesn’t anyone want me to sleep?! ;)

Speaking of which…