28 February, 2009


I want to see two weeks of CNN gushings and recountings of this.

"We did our job without feeling like heroes," Mr Lyakhov later told reporters.

"We weren't scared. We are trained for these kinds of situations."

So God wasn't his copilot?

11 February, 2009

Contradiction in Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger

Somehow Penelope Lively found the checklist of subjects I like to see explored in literature that I leave lying around, because her novel Moon Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 1987, contains all of them: lyrical, sweeping accounts of histories both personal and international; objects imbued with the etymologies of their names; people overcoming their questionable excesses of pretentiousness; the violent impact of war and progress on society; hot, ancient deserts; varying perspectives, beliefs, and suppositions causing people to misinterpret each other, with conflict arising from miscommunication and a tension arising from the various ways in which several people can see the same thing; and people struggling to understand the strangers within themselves--the people they were and the actions they do that contradict who they think they are and who they want to be. Check, check, and check.

Claudia Hampton is a popular historian who, with death imminent, decides to write a startling new chronology of the world from her deathbed, entirely inside her head. Her history will free associate; the dinosaurs of the Jurassic will roam freely with the Victorian construction workers who unearthed their bones, and her own opinions and memories and connotations of both will earn just as much factual merit as scholarly opinion, so that a recollection of bathing on the shore with her little brother and discovering an ammonite fossil will be just as important as any geological-biological description of the rise and fall of the ammonite species. Her world history, which is Moon Tiger, will be life as we live it, with complications, contradictions, confusions, regrets, pining for the future, and fondness for the past all jumbled together, and so the book drifts freely from personal narrative to historical explanation, between various overlapping and contradictory viewpoints, through several nonlinear time frames, making declarative statements yet admitting to the shakiness of Truth.

Claudia is at once a feeble old woman and a brilliant wunderkind, a neglectful mother and a life-saving surrogate mom, a controversial and florid populist and a harsh critic of popular entertainment, an independent sexual partner and a devoted lover, a judgmental sibling and an incestuous admirer, a pretentious bullhorn and an insecure human. At what moment were parts of her personality born? At what moment did aspects die? With all these forces competing, how will she be remembered by those she offended, betrayed, loved, and ignored?

Central to the story is her daughter, Lisa, the offspring of a prolonged affair whom she quickly dismisses as dumb at a very early age. Caught up in her own world of intellectuals and unready for motherhood, she judges her three-year-old for being unable to discourse, rationalize, and argue effectively. To her dumb daughter, all wide-eyed and full of ignorant wonder, she is Claudia, since Mom is a stupid and immature name. We, perhaps more willing to trust in a child's eventual advancement and development and its need for certain attentions and bonds, see Claudia's flaws reflected through her own arrogant dismissals, and when Lisa is an adult--an average mother with an above average intelligence and a below average self esteem--we see the chasm that Claudia's poor choices of four decades ago has eroded between them, an unbridgeable gap of misunderstanding, with Claudia still convinced that her daughter is a bit simple and Lisa wrongly convinced that she knows more about her mother than her mother knows about either of them. Lisa, clinging to memories of affairs and secrets that her mother will never know, embraces the satisfying idea that she is able to make herself more than meets the eye, that anyone who writes her off as easily understood is sorely mistaken, even if they never know so. We all perhaps hold onto these secrets, mementos, guilts, desires, and memories that are unique and individual, that allow us to believe that even if we are unearthed, humiliated, dismissed, and attacked, some private part of ourselves will remain intact and untouched. Lisa's insecure defense against an all-knowing and presumptuous mother carries into her other relationships; despite having a loving marriage, she carries on an extramarital affair that only she and her lover know anything about--an extraneous affair, from many viewpoints.

Lisa fails, though, in assuming that her secret defense is a personal innovation, that offenders like her mother don't have hidden stores of private energy. As her mother dies, a fading and crippled woman, she avenges her bad childhood by dismissing her mother as an arrogant, mistake-prone bitch incapable of loving anyone. Given our insight into Claudia's mind, we know this is a huge mistake, and perhaps the worst curse that Claudia has bestowed upon her daughter is her own proclivity toward making narrow assumptions about those around her.

In the end, Lisa's revenge is thwarted by Claudia's sudden revelation of something completely inconsistent with her outward behavior toward her daughter: an apology leaves both of them surprised and perplexed, trying to make sense of the tangled mess of ideas, traits, contradictions, and actions that comprise the gray regions of history, personality, and truth.

Moon Tiger is a fantastic book about ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, World War II, the French and Hungarian revolutions, love, death, and childhood thoughts that I highly recommend to everyone.

09 February, 2009

Movie Review: The Engima of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Werner Herzog's commitment to historical accuracy in The Engima of Kaspar Hauser, the true story of a half-wild foundling who in May 26, 1828, was discovered on the streets of Nuremberg carrying an unusual origin story, only illustrates how far-fetched Kaspar's claims were, elucidating the theories that he was a professional swindler and method actor. Kaspar, raised in a tiny, hay-strewn room for seventeen years, having never seen another human nor anything beyond his cellar walls before being dumped in Nuremberg by his mysterious caretaker, acquires language and culture with extraordinary rapidity, is more civil and intelligent than many of the citizens he eventually meets (making this film quite similar to Lynch's The Elephant Man), and behaves calmly, patiently, and insightfully, whereas almost every other documented case of actual feral children has resulted in severe mental trauma, extreme retardation, behavioral and emotional issues, and early death. Having passed the window of opportunity for enculturation, most feral children never gain basic human social skills. Kaspar, however, writes a journal, plays piano, and enlightens those around him before mysteriously being murdered.

To see Herzog treat Kaspar's story as an actual instance of long-term seclusion and not an elaborate hoax is a bit difficult to swallow at first, but the story eventually allows for scenes of meaningful commentary on society, culture, logic, and independence--scenes which justify the film's spot at #524 on the TSPDT? list.

Played by the odd-looking Bruno S., who was 41 at the time, Kaspar Hauser is the image of loneliness, confusion, and non-conformity. He has spent all his life passing minute after minute with no stimulation other than his--we assume--thoughts. Prior to leaving his cellar, he doesn't even have dreams (what images and situations would the dreams consist of? we can't imagine anything completely outside our own realm of experience... his dreams would be inseparable from the reality of sitting in the room). One would expect the world of wonders that greets him upon his release to be either frightening or exciting. Women and flowers and sunsets and architecture. Any Hollywood movie would show a chaotic blend of emotional ups-and-downs accompanying these discoveries (remember the awful At First Sight with Val Kilmer?); instead, Kaspar is disillusioned without even knowing it. The bigger his world becomes, the smaller it seems. Observing a tower, he remarks that it must be smaller than the room to which he was confined, which could be seen above him, below him, and all around him whereas he need only turn around to stop seeing the tower. A friend and mentor attempts to explain the flaws in his reasoning, but his disappointment is persistent. People are howling wolves to him, flowers are pointless, and the only happiness he has is the discovery of his own imagination. Inspired by reading, he can soon picture worlds beyond his own, worlds infinitely more peaceful and beautiful, worlds able to be controlled and subdued because they exist only in his dreams. His only comfort, he says, is in sleep.

Added to his disillusionment is the general disappointing value of human society: simpering nobility, cruel strangers, boring families, kowtowing bureaucrats, and pretentious intellectuals. A professor tests his development by guiding him through a logic experiment involving an encounter with a stranger at the crossroads between the Town of Liars and the Town of Truthtellers. Asking only one question, how could you know what town the stranger comes from? "I would ask him if he is a tree frog," Kaspar explains, eliciting the outrage of the tester, who dismisses the answer as being devoid of logic and completely unacceptable, instead offering a correct answer involving double negatives that makes no literal sense whatsoever.

There are plenty of similar scenes, including two in which Kaspar is showcased at both a circus sideshow and an elitist's fete (both of them very much the same), all of them adding up to a general desire for the viewer to retreat like Kaspar to a quiet room and never have to talk to another person again. The culmination comes after his mysterious murder, when the scientists and politicians who have pondered him for two years finally get to perform an autopsy. The protagonist's wet, gray brain is brought before the camera and cut in half, and the learned men discuss the size of his cerebellum and the swelling of his liver as if the cursory examination of his dead body could say far more about the unusual man than his insightful, iconoclastic words ever could.

But before that, on his death bed, he retreats to his imagination, telling those gathered around him the beginning of a story the end of which he cannot recall. Grainy footage shows us Berbers in the Sahara Desert, lost for miles, wandering in circles, consulting their compasses and scientific instruments to no avail. Finally they see an oasis in the distance that their science confirms, but the oldest and wisest among them bends to the sand, tastes the earth, and tells them they're full of shit. Their eyes have deceived them; their goal is in another direction. And it is. It's a beautiful story placing individual intuition and earthly awareness above science and collective corroboration. Which is exactly what Kaspar Hauser realizes in his two years among the humans: it's a hard and loud and stupid world, and sometimes you just need to retreat with your personal beliefs and insanities into a blessed isolation. Come to think of it--judging from Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn--that might just be what all of Herzog's movies are about.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
d/w: Werner Herzog
(Bruno S.)
TSPDT? #524

I have a feeling this isn't written very well. Blame it on my tiredness.

05 February, 2009

Movie Review: Killer of Sheep (1977)

So I've committed to seeing and writing about all of the 1000 films on the TSPDT? list, which means I eventually have to say a few words about Charles Burnett's extremely low budget 1977 film Killer of Sheep, which is #326 on the list. I watched it a couple weeks ago and have been hoping that some inspiration would come to me in the way of insightful remarks about this film's meaning and intent.

But really, I haven't got much. It's a good film with beautiful cinematography and an evocative soundtrack, but it's the equivalent of looking through some dead stranger's vintage family photo album at an abandoned thrift shop. The film follows an impoverished Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles, California, occasionally focusing on his family members, children, neighbors, and various other people. There is no plot line, except an overall yearning to rise out of the gutter. Stan is offered various unappealing and unsuccessful opportunities from people who are no less impoverished than he is. Two dapper robbers give him a scoop, only to be chased away by his wife. An obese, white liquor store owner offers him a job and a disgusting sexual proposition. A friend goes in on a car engine purchase with him; they labor out the apartment, down the stairs, and to the curb carrying the engine, only to have it fall out of the bed of the truck and break.

Killer of Sheep is a portrait of life on the brink of devastation. Yet it is a tenacious life, able to persist indefinitely, teetering on the precipice yet never falling off. Like Wile E. Coyote standing on air for as long as he doesn't look down. We begin to realize that we from outside see more of how bleak his life is than he does--that from within the murkiness obscures itself. At one point he compares himself favorably to someone in an even worse situation, noting that he donates to the Salvation Army and therefore can't possibly be that poor: "You want to see somebody that’s poor, now, you go around and look at Walter’s. Now they be sitting over an oven with nothing but a coat on, and sitting around rubbing their knees, all day eating nothing but wild greens picked out of a vacant lot. No, that ain’t me and damn sure won’t be." Of course, from a third-person perspective, with no consideration for pride and personal opinions, their situations seem very similar. That might not be him today, but it damn sure might be tomorrow.

And so we see the moments of scrabbled happiness amongst the dirt: toyless children hurling stones and broken concrete for fun, three kids piled onto one bicycle, a teenager adding a pound of sugar to a bowl of cereal, two exhausted lovers sharing a sweaty slow dance to Dinah Washington, full of steamy sexual energy but too tired to do much about it. And the disappointments build up infinitely--broken down cars, kitchens in disrepair, a bloody job as a meat processor that involves ripping the skin and wool off of still live sheep. When at the end Stan's wife reveals that she's pregnant again, it's hard to know which category to check it off under--the joy of a new life or the financial burden of another mouth to feed.

It's a good movie, and I guess I had more to write about it than I suspected. In many ways it reminds me of the 1999 Scottish film Ratcatcher, which isn't on the list yet but probably will be in a future year's update. Both are bleak, haunted, and uneventful yet beautiful and realistic. There's not much hope in either, and the promise that life will keep going on seems more like an insult than a reward.

Killer of Sheep
d/w: Charles Burnett
(Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore)
TSPDT? #326

03 February, 2009

Movie Review: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Anyone who's ever said anything about the Israeli-Palestine conflict has had something to say about the cycle of violence--how Muslims killed Jews because they killed Muslims who had in turn killed Jews, and so on and so forth. Steven Spielberg did as good as job as any exploring this in 2005's Munich, and the theme has been explored at least as far back as Seneca's revenge cycles. Israeli director Ari Folman touches upon the subject in his animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, but the film is less about plotting the tortuous cycle and more about examining its long-term psychological effects on those directly involved.

In a coffee shop late one night, an old friend explains to Folman that he's been hounded by twenty-six stray dogs--exactly twenty-six--in his recurring nightmares for years. The scrappy, vicious dogs want to kill him as he hides in his apartment, one for each of the watchdogs he sniped during the Lebanese War two and a half decades ago. Too soft-hearted to shoot at combatants, he had been tasked with killing the dogs before they warned villagers of the approaching men. Twenty-six of them, each ingrained in his memory forever, haunting him for his crimes.

Why come to me now after all these years, Folman asks, I'm just a filmmaker. To which his friend explains that filmmakers know things, they understand ways of looking at subjects, exploring them to the fullest. What do you remember of Lebanon, his friend inquires, and Folman is surprised to realize that he remembers nothing, absolutely nothing of his time in a costly and violent war.

And so--not knowing anything--Folman sets out to understand his experience in the forgotten war, in the process exploring the innerworkings of the mind and the trauma inflicted upon all the young men involved. Consulting a psychiatrist friend, he's told that the mind remembers what it wants to remember, sometimes even what it's told to remember in false, implanted recollections. The mind's defense mechanisms are many, and it never goes where it's unable or unwilling to travel. You won't illuminate the dark recesses of your brain, the psychiatrist assures a worried Folman, until you're mentally capable of entering those shadows.

Clinging to one implausible flashback of floating naked in a river with bombshell fireworks falling from the night sky, Folman tracks down old friends, old roommates, old lieutenants, and war correspondents, hoping they can shed light on his own experiences while revealing their own mental blocks, regrets, and coping mechanisms. A nerdy, young scientist decides to add brawn to his brains by joining the army and proving his manhood, unaware that the other, more confident-looking young men on board his ship are just as insecure and skittish. He retreats into sleep as he always does when avoiding stress, and in his dreams a sea goddess comforts him while he dozedly watches his unit get annihilated. Upon waking and landing on shore, he and his trigger-happy companions, full of intense training and joie de vivre yet lacking in direct focus, open fire on the first moving target, a car with a family inside. The overkill is sickening.

One man joins the army as he would sign up to join a spring break vacation group. As upbeat punk tunes with lyrics about bombing cities play, the boy goes on his excursion through the countryside, taking photographs, eating potato chips, and at one point remarking on how invincible one feels when inside a tank. When he realizes that even tanks are not impenetrable, though, he sets out on the most dangerous, lonely, and regretful adventure of his life.

At another point fighting in the war is seen as an exercise in revenge against an ex-lover--my death sure will make her feel awful.

As Folman interviews more witnesses, both the atrocities--RPG-wielding ten-year-olds gunned down in orchards, comrades being shot in the middle of conversation--as well as the mental feats begin to accumulate. A young man temporarily hallucinates that he is in a better time and place. A man tasked with clearing dead bodies from a battlefield shuts off his mind and enters a routine, mechanical working mode. An adrenaline-pumped soldier performs the titular dance amongst a chaotic crossfire of bullets, his lust for life allowing him to emerge unscathed.

At first Folman remembers only the furloughs away from his duty, but as time progresses the fullness of his flashback unravels, revealing his own role in assisting the genocidal massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra-Shatila massacres. Ultimately the film explores the role of mental apathy in the destruction of our planet. How did normal German people allow their neighbors to be carted off to death camps? How could Jewish people, less than forty years later, participate in the same mindless killing, pleading collective ignorance when the outcome is obvious? How could any young person, still trying to understand himself and the world he lives in, wield a weapon and go to war?

The film assigns no blame, nor does it wallow in self-pity or attempt to explain the inexplicable. It asks viewers merely to open their eyes and keep an active mind, that only by maintaining a human mentality can we prevent ourselves from becoming killing machines.

With impressive, expressive animation (utilizing a variety of techniques), the movie achieves a dreary, hypnotic tone--characters walk slowly and robotically, settings fade seamlessly into each other, the sense of time is never quite stable, as in dreams; they speak with emotional detachment; the very effective score by Max Richter is haunting and subliminal. The film doesn't so much build as it chisels, boring into the skull and breaking past all the self-protective obstacles. The sudden revelation at the end is powerful and resonant, seeming to rise from the viewer's own darkest memories.

Waltz with Bashir
d/w: Ari Folman

It's unfortunate that "R-rated, foreign language, animated documentary" is such a hard sell in this country. It's only been released in 44 theaters, which means people will have a hard time even hearing about this powerful, beautiful movie.

01 February, 2009

An Accomplishment, a Recollection, and a Resignation

Just wanted to say that it's been exactly one year since I've touched a cigarette. It surprises me very much--as a former chainsmoker and smoking advocate--that the thought of cigarettes now nauseates me. My lungs feel wonderful, and my gums are relieved. Fuck Camels.

This weekend one year ago, I smoked my last bummed cig, fell down a flight of wet stairs (possibly cracking a rib in the process), passed out on a train, walked out on a job without saying anything, and enjoyed watching a sporting event by myself. I'm in an extremely different place right now, and it's all rather strange. But, all in all, on the up and up!

And finally, I have a Facebook now. I resisted for four years and I still don't really understand all it's capable of, but Myspace has practically died and I want to remain in touch with people. Look for me if you want. My name is over there in the right margin.

Thank you for reading my blog.

The Year in Film: 2008 in Review

Let me just say I'm really disappointed by the Oscar nominees this year. Only one of the Best Picture nominees is even in my Top Ten, and I don't even feel like seeing The Reader despite its Best Picture nomination because 1) it's obviously Oscar bait, 2) the book was quite disappointing, and 3) it got pretty awful reviews. Anyway, when considering my choices, keep in mind that the only major films I haven't seen this year are The Reader, The Class, Wanted, and Kung Fu Panda. If you're wondering why Milk or any other such movie isn't making any appearances, it's because I didn't like it, not because I didn't see it.

Hyperlinked titles link to my own personal reviews from this blog. There are still a few more reviews I hope to write one day soon.

01. The Wrestler
02. The Dark Knight
03. Let the Right One In
04. Rachel Getting Married
05. Synecdoche, New York
06. Waltz With Bashir
07. Slumdog Millionaire
08. Man on Wire
09. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
10. Doubt

01. Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler
02. Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon in Frost/Nixon
03. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk
04. Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
05. Jamie Bell as Hallam Foe in Hallam Foe

01. Kristin Scott Thomas as Juliette Fontaine in I've Loved You So Long
02. Anne Hathaway as Kym in Rachel Getting Married
03. Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky
04. Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy in Frozen River
05. Meryl Streep as Sister Aloiysius in Doubt

01. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
02. Josh Brolin as Dan White in Milk
03. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
04. Tom Cruise as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder
05. Nick Nolte as Four Leaf Tayback in Tropic Thunder

01. Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller in Doubt
02. Marisa Tomei as Pam in The Wrestler
03. Rosemary DeWitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married
04. Samantha Morton as Hazel in Synecdoche, New York
05. Frances McDormand as Linda Litzke in Burn After Reading

01. Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight
02. Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler
03. Jonathan Demme for Rachel Getting Married
04. The Coens for Burn After Reading
05. Tomas Alfredson for Let the Right One In


Hellboy II: The Golden Army

John Ajvide Lindqvist for Let the Right One In
Runner-Up: The Dark Knight

Robert D. Siegel for The Wrestler
Runner-Up: Synecdoche, New York

"The Wrestler" by Bruce Springsteen from The Wrestler

Hallam Foe
Runner-Up: Slumdog Millionaire

Waltz with Bashir
Runner-Up: The Dark Knight

Waltz with Bashir

The Joker from The Dark Knight

01. Synecdoche, New York
02. Rachel Getting Married
03. Burn After Reading
04. The Dark Knight
05. Slumdog Millionaire

01. Let the Right One In
02. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
03. Slumdog Millionaire
04. The Dark Knight
05. Revolutionary Road

Al Pacino in 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill

Lele Sobieski in 88 Minutes and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

88 Minutes

Meet the Spartans

Rambo, for simultaneously being extremely well-made and horribly, offensively, outrageously awful