Thursday, January 31, 2008


The past week has played like a paid advertisement for the value of film societies like Cinema 100. I had not yet seen “Hud” when we selected it as a classic for the series and was excited to be able to finally see it – and on the big screen. Planning to write this review, I queued it up through Netflix and sat back to await its arrival in my mailbox. Sadly, Netflix didn’t send it to me (which means few copies in stock, none currently in Minneapolis).

I thought: “No problem. It’s an Oscar winner starring Paul Newman. I’ll just go down the street and rent it.” Well, no dice. They hadn’t heard of it. “How can this be?” I thought. It is based on a novel by Larry McMurtry of “Lonesome Dove” fame. Everybody loves the guy’s work. I started phoning video stores and was asked over and over by befuddled clerks to spell the title. “H-U-D” I’d patiently say. Finally, the clerk at Blockbuster said, “Yep, we have it.” I quipped that she probably wouldn’t need to hold it for me. She said with a laugh, “Probably not.”

Yes, Bismarck/Mandan is in for a rare treat – even more so than I thought a week ago – when Cinema 100 brings “Hud” to town. Ravishingly shot in Oscar winning black and white, “Hud” is a feast for the eyes sure to fill an expansive Grand Theatre screen.

Before we first meet Hud Bannon, played by Paul Newman, we learn that he drives a pink Cadillac and has a propensity for leaving bar owners sweeping up broken glass in his wake. We first meet him having a reckless affair with a married woman followed by his crafty escape from said woman’s home-returning husband and a fast-driving getaway in that pink Cadillac.

This is a quick, efficient, and dazzling introduction to Newman’s character, essentially a man with his own personal moral compass – or lack of one if you prefer. To his father Homer, played memorably by Melvyn Douglas, Hud says, “I always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner.” It stands as Hud’s motto, much to Homer’s distaste and dismay.

Homer is the old guard, a cattle rancher filled with integrity from boots to cowboy hat. When faced with the possibility of losing his herd and his very livelihood to foot and mouth disease, he is sadly resigned, Job-like, to await fate. Hud instead paces before him and devises of plan for unloading the still seemingly healthy cattle quickly, letting some other poor soul take the fall. He says, “Let’s dip our bread in the gravy while it’s still hot.”

This father and son ethical divide is what propels “Hud” through it dramas and toward its desolate conclusions – including a dented pink Cadillac. What I most enjoyed though is how it stylistically plays with the idea of old and new by mixing classic Hollywood with the method acting style of Newman, anticipating such near future films as “Bonnie & Clyde” with Warren Beatty.

Classic Hollywood style is exemplified by controlled studio conventions. Method acting is all posturing and spontaneity. The entrance of method acting into Hollywood was an advance of liberalism toward the long-standing conservatism that had pervaded the industry. “Bonnie & Clyde” was a culmination. “Hud” was a stepping stone.

An example is the use of rear-projection shots in driving scenes. They were staples of Hollywood and already cliché by the time “Hud” was filmed, even laughable. Cars would twist and turn down winding roads with the driver hardly moving the steering wheel. “Hud” takes knowing advantage of its milieu of endlessly straight roads to turn these rear-projection shots into the perfect setting for Newman’s posturing. He can lounge about behind the wheel in as many cool poses as he can conjure and never once have to worry about turning the wheel more than a nudge.

“Hud” has the old and the new still finding at least a stylistic a way to get along in 1963. By 1967 and “Bonnie & Clyde,” the new had completely taken over.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

There's Nothing Like a Theater

There is a very humorous video clip, posted recently on YouTube. It features director David Lynch ranting about the ills of watching movies on an iPhone. He comes completely unglued actually and curses and everything. The point he is making is anyone who watches a movie in a subpar format is delusional if he thinks he’s actually seeing the movie.

We have an unprecedented number of non-theatrical movie watching options nowadays. People will download movies (illegally) or convert them from DVDs (legally) and watch them on iPods and Zunes. People will stream movies to their computers and watch them in low resolution in tiny little windows. And, most often, people buy or rent them on DVD to view on their televisions. At the very best, that television will be really big and surrounded by a great set of six speakers.

Now, I doubt I need to convince anyone that watching movies on an iPod or streamed to a computer cheapens the movie viewing experience. In a medium so heavily weighted toward visual details lurking in every part of the frame, I can’t imagine a serious defense being waged in favor of squinting simply to determine which character is speaking. I can though imagine reasonable reasoning favoring a high quality home theater experience over a movie theater. I’ve even done it myself at times.

Going out to movies isn’t perfect. Tickets are expensive. Concessions are expensive. Babysitting is expensive. A night out at the movies can easily run over $40, and that’s without treating your date to a nice dinner. A DVD – or often two – can cost less, especially at Target. In fact, one may even have enough money left over for about a gallon of pop and a box of microwave popping corn. Toss the kids in bed, sit back on the sofa, and hit play. You can even talk all you want without dirty looks – or not have to fire dirty looks across the room if silence is your preference. Heck, you can even hit pause if you need to run to the bathroom or, as I’ve had to do many times, help your teenager with math homework.

Does that sound heavenly? It certainly has its good points. But stop to think about how it is cheapening the movie watching experience.

Most obviously, no matter how much money you pour into your TV, it isn’t going to approach the size of even a small theater screen – and no, I’m not forgetting about home video projectors. And it is amazing what happens when you view a film – you think you know well – for the first time in a theater. Details unnoticeable from across the room on a 35 inch screen suddenly stand out five feet tall. I “saw” Apocalypse Now countless times before attending a Cinema 100 screening and had never noticed the very important words “Death from Above” scrawled across the front of a helicopter. I never noticed the book titles “World Targets in Megadeaths” from Dr Strangelove or “Introducing Sociology” from Eyes Wide Shut until seeing them boldly projected on a huge screen.

Movies are a communal experience, or least they should be. I’ve never found Night of the Living Dead nearly as terrifying as I did while watching it at midnight with hundreds of other college students. Star Wars will never be as thrilling as it was when I stood in line around the block as a kid and felt the electricity in the air as over 1000 other “kids” young and old cheered the death of the death star. And I’ve never laughed half as hard at Young Frankenstein or Annie Hall as I did last year during crowded Cinema 100 screenings. Laughter has a funny way of building from one person to the next up and down the aisles of a theater.

Movies are meant to be watched start to finish, without stopping. They aren’t books. David Lynch (he’s getting pretty grumpy these days) refuses to allow chapter stops on the DVDs for his films to discourage mistreating them as books. He’s also cited the cheapening (that word again) effect of our lazy stop and start viewing habits. People will often (and I’m also to blame) start a movie one day, continue it a day or so later, and finish it when they get the chance. They may even jump back and re-watch a chapter or two – or even start over completely – because they’ve forgotten what was going on. We just have so many distractions at home. Watching a movie in a theater forces you to concentrate – if you miss something, there’s no going back – and forget about everything else. (People often talk about their love of movies as a form of escape. This is only really possible – I propose – if one first escapes from their house and goes to a theater.)

And, if you really want to get technical, chew on these facts for a moment:
DVDs never really get the colors of a movie quite right – or even close in some cases. Yasujiro Ozu’s late color films Good Morning and Floating Weeds look fine on DVD until one compares them side-by-side with the projected image from film.

Or did you know that films run at 24 frames per second while video runs at 30 frames per second here in the United States? Obviously, some form of trickery (there are a few options) has been imposed on the film, changing it in a subtle but meaningful way, making it run at a different speed.

Or did you know that, half the time one sits in a movie theater, the screen is completely dark? Two pulses of light are shown through a frame and then the screen is dark as the next frame is moved into position by the projector. This causes a flickering effect (thus the slang term “flicks”) that is cancelled out by persistence of vision. (Its subliminal effect is still felt though.) Video doesn’t flicker. It is smooth with your TV screen always emitting light. Again, the difference is subtle but meaningful.

For these reasons, filmmaker Stan Brakhage refused to allow his films to be made available on DVD until near the end of his life and only then accompanied by a disclaimer that they are merely approximations of the films. To see the films as they really are, he advised to try to find a film society screening. (Ahem, maybe Cinema 100 should show a few Brakhage films. I know I'd be there.)


There are times when the critic in me finds himself totally disarmed. Some movies accumulate such a mountain of little pleasures that they dare me to burrow in and look for flaws or to even attempt analysis. I’ll find myself sitting in the theater with a smile from start to finish and overwhelmed by the feeling that (almost) everything is perfect. Juno is one of those movies.

Juno opens with a teenage girl (the title character played appealingly by Ellen Page) discovering that she is pregnant – in a drugstore scene alone worth the price of admission. It then follows her through all the decisions and indecisions she must make while dealing with a situation beyond her maturity level.

(This is my one stab at analysis. The theme of the movie is maturity – Juno states this in one of many delicious throwaway lines sprinkled throughout the script. Every major character is drawn as being to some degree mature enough or not mature enough to be dealing with the issues at hand. Juno, the character, of course discovers she is more mature than she thought and the movie makes the point that age and maturity don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.)

Another scene worth the price of admission is the inevitable “pregnant girl breaking the news to her parents” scene. In Juno though, this scene is filled with mixed feelings. You can watch every character – Juno, her moral support lending best friend, her dad, her stepmom – go through all the phases of “this isn’t happening” and “I’m not ready for this” and “I can deal with this.” By scene’s end, you just know that these people will work it out – and that Juno’s boyfriend should start protecting his private parts.

Like last year’s Knocked Up, Juno goes through “abortion is an option” motions before casually and humorously abandoning the idea. Juno then settles on adoption as a solution and this leads to her getting to know the prospective adoptive parents. While the prospective mother comes across as underdeveloped and inscrutable (a slight flaw), the prospective father is a fascinating character and his relationship with Juno is key. He is an overgrown boy still playing with his toys. At first, Juno connects with him as a peer, but then has a turning point when she sees reflecting back from him a level of maturity she has already left well behind.

Paulie Bleeker, Juno’s boyfriend and the father of her baby, is a beautiful creation brought to life by Micheal Cera. At first, he is a gawky Napoleon Dynamite clone and the butt of many jokes. When confronted with the name of the father, Juno’s dad says, “I didn’t think he had it in him.” But, over time he grows in dimension before our very eyes and ends up a mentor to Juno teaching her lessons about what it means to grow up and what it means to be in love.

Maybe Juno’s complex and open-minded attitude toward maturity did the trick: my wife and I drove home smiling and my teenage daughter and her friends have changed the artwork and music on their MySpace sites to keep their Juno memories alive. Often, movies that deal with teenager/parent relationships are condescending toward one or the other. They are either centered on the teens and the parents are neglectful, self-motivated, or absent; or they are centered on the parents and the teens are trouble with a capital “T” and need to grow up. Juno treats all of its characters with equal respect. They are all just essentially good people struggling to grow up.

Monday, January 14, 2008

2008 Winter/Spring Series

The new series is now complete. It is:

1/31 – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (USA, 2007, 79 min, PG-13)
2/7 – Hud (USA, 1963, 112 min, Unrated)
2/14 – Offside (Iran, 2006, 93 min, PG)
2/21 – Paprika (Japan, 2006, 90 min, R)
3/6 – The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006, 137 min, R)
3/13 – The Red Balloon (France, 1956, 34 min, Unrated)/White Mane (France, 1953, 47 min, Unrated) (a family-friendly double feature)
3/20 – Water (India, 2005, 117 min, PG-13)
4/3 – My Kid Could Paint That (USA, 2007, 82 min, PG-13)
4/10 – Secret Film Surprise
4/17 – To Kill a Mockingbird (USA, 1962, 129 min, Unrated)
4/24 – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Romania, 2007, 113 min, R)

It is a quite diverse list that should have a much to offer for everyone – even a classic pair for kids.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Are Documentaries Real?

I recently came to a realization while watching Louis Malle’s mesmerizing series Phantom India: My favorite type of movie is the documentary. They are simply more fascinating in terms of editing and in terms of the relationship between actor, director, and spectator. They make for the most fascinating commentary on how the movies construct reality. In short, they make for the most fascinating cinema.

I once wrote an essay for the publication The Open Forum in which I proclaimed that “all films are documentaries.” It was motivated by playwright David Mamet’s declaration “all directors should strive to be documentary filmmakers.” By that he meant that directors work too hard trying to get actors and camera to express things beyond their reach. I’ve often read in a screenplay things like: “Filled with anticipation, [character name here] enters the room. He takes his seat at the head of the table, alert to whatever fate may throw his way next.”

Now, Mamet’s point is that one simply cannot film these things, at least not easily. How does an actor act out anticipation and alertness? What documentary filmmakers do on a daily basis is shoot shots of this and that, a shot of a couple kissing in a park, a shot of birds flying. He then finds a way to stitch them together in the editing to give them meaning. Mamet offers the example of taking a shot of a foot stepping on a twig and cutting it to a shot of a deer suddenly lifting its head to create the idea of alertness. Neither shot carried the meaning of alertness. Neither shot carried much meaning at all. But combined, they create meaning. In fiction films, Mamet argues, actors shouldn’t be required to create any more meaning than that foot stepping on a twig or deer lifting its head. Let the editing do the work.

This notion of letting the editing create meaning is – as Mamet points out – almost as old as the cinema. It all started in Russia with the pioneering silent filmmakers Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein. Kuleshov is famous for having conducted an experiment where he filmed neutral, expressionless shots of actor Ivan Mozzhukhin. He then edited them in an alternating fashion with shots of a steaming bowl of soup, a pretty girl, and a coffin. Showing it to an audience, he was pleased and amazed to hear their raves over the actor’s versatility in expressing feelings of hunger, desire, and grief.

Eisenstein expanded this experiment into a complete theory of film editing, his theory of dialectical montage. Up to that point, Hollywood filmmaking had emphasized the easy flow from one shot to the next as the audience is carried through the events of a story. Eisenstein was interested in putting the shots at war with each other, making them crash into each other. And out of these collisions would spring to life new meaning. In his most famous film, The Battleship Potemkin, he (to offer a simple example) cut together three successive shots of lion statues – sleeping, head raised, sitting up – to express the awakening of anger and rebellion.

We get an example of this – a conscious commentary – in Chris Marker’s remarkable documentary essay Sans Soleil. He cuts from a Japanese cartoon shot of a gun being fired to a giraffe stumbling in Africa. Now, it is obvious that the bullet from that gun did not strike that animal and yet the connection enters our imagination all the same. It is no different really from the more devious temporal rearrangements by Michael Moore in Roger & Me to create a make believe timeline to better hang Roger Smith. Or rather, it is no different except that the trickery behind Moore’s creative editing is not obvious.

Have you ever pointed a camera at a friend or family member? I am certain that they immediately stopped behaving naturally. They probably either ran away, hands over face, or began posing like some crazed cover model. In a fictional movie – Raging Bull; Dude, Where’s My Car? – the actors aren’t being themselves (at least we hope not). They are acting.

In Phantom India, Malle makes the point that his documentary subjects are doing the very same. He films them going about their daily activities after giving them one simple instruction: “Don’t look into the camera.” (As an aside, there is an entire sequence in Sans Soleil in which Marker asks: “Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?” In Phantom India, Malle collected so many shots of people staring at the camera that he turned it into a leitmotif.) What Malle got was a lot of people doing what they do as if trying to do it the way a movie star would do it. It’s just a variation on how interview subjects will often wear their best dress and special occasion makeup, or how one madly cleans up the house before guests arrive. They are all performances.

Making the connection between acting and the people in documentaries even more clear is the way documentary subjects are cast. In Hoop Dreams, many more characters were initially filmed than the two young basketball hopefuls we end up following. Two criteria are generally employed while selecting subjects. Does the person fit one of the archetypes required to create a well-rounded story? (Is he a hero, villain, mentor, etc.?) And is he interesting and extroverted? The kids featured in Jesus Camp attained their star status because they are natural performers. Point a camera at them and they immediately turn on like Eveready Bunnies. They wouldn’t be very useful if they covered their faces and fled.

“Everything one sees and hears in a documentary is true.” To fully appreciate documentary film, one must begin by realizing the utter falsity – and perversely – the utter truthfulness of that statement.

In his documentary Letter from Siberia, Chris Marker conducted an experiment. Footage of streets, a bus, and workers repairing a road is repeated unchanged three times. Each is accompanied by a different voiceover narration. The first gives an impression of happy workers and modernization. The second mentions slaves and primitive labor. The third gives simply a direct description of what we see. Which is the truth? The similarity to Kuleshov’s experiment is clear. Uninflected images are charged with meaning by being juxtaposed with narration.

Add to that effect the documentary filmmaker’s process of selection and you get a complete picture of the documentary’s complex relationship with truth. When we watch the documentary Gimme Shelter and see the darkness and violence and the hubris displayed by the Rolling Stones and their lawyers, it is easy to get the impression that nothing else happened. But a two stage process has been guided by the Mayles Brothers desire to make a film about darkness and violence and hubris. They directed their cameramen to seek out and point their cameras at certain people and activities. They chose to include in the final edit only shots that contributed to their agenda. While it may have been a challenge – I don’t know, I wasn’t there – a filmmaker with a different agenda could’ve made Altamont look like a happy party full of frolicking hippies. Which is true? Both and neither are true. Both are true because every image and sound used really happened. Pictures and sounds don’t lie, or do they? But neither gives the whole picture, the whole truth.

In Phantom India, Malle gives us a very full and well-rounded portrait of India. It is a travelogue of sorts that takes us to all parts of the country and introduces us to a great many widely varied people. What we end up with though is not the truth about India in 1962, but rather how a French, radical intellectual sees and interprets the India he saw. It is ultimately a gentle call for the not so gentle need for revolution in a country stifled by a caste system combined with Malle’s dismay at the seeming impossibility of such revolutionary change. Religious belief has people perfectly content in their lots in life no matter how high or low. Is Malle’s India the truth?

In the end, I always arrive at the end of a good documentary with my head filled with ideas, ideas about the nature of directing and acting and editing, ideas about the cinema itself. Most fictional movies leave me with thoughts like “that acting sure was good” and “those sets sure were dazzling” and “I wonder what will get nominated for an Oscar.” I think many a documentary should sweep every category at the Academy Awards. After all, what is more impressive than a documentary editor stitching together thousands of unrelated images and sounds to tell a story?