The Week in Consumption, 10/19

Each week I look back on the things I consumed. Was I entertained? What did I learn?

Miss Julie Directed by Alf Sjoberg, and starring Anita Bjork. Miss Julie is based on the August Strindberg play, which is a long kitchen conversation between the lady and her servant Jean. Julie has just broken off an engagement, and considers running off with Jean on a may night. The movie departs from the play in providing us with extensive flashbacks on Julie’s life, and adds the tempestuous physical presence of the other servants. It can be a little too on-the-nose about class, and the entrapment of the rich. In one scene, Miss Julie watches out her window, paired in the frame with a bird in a cage. But in return we experience a master class. in expressionist filmmaking. Key scene: Julie and Jean discuss their dreams, while in the background, they come to life.

Wings of Desire Directed by Wim Wenders, and starring Bruno Ganz. An angel watches over Berlin, and listens in on people’s thoughts. Soon, he falls in love with a circus performer, and gives up the angelic life to be with her. I quite enjoyed the rhythm of the first hour or so of the film, which is almost entirely made up of angels listening to other people. One set, a large open library, is particularly striking. The film spends very little time on the central “romance”, but I’m just fine with that–it’s not a straightforward romance, and the final scene suggests the angel becomes human simply to help the acrobat with her art. It’s weird to see Nick Cave pop up, as a vital plot point. It’s doubly weird when our angel meets Peter Falk, and we learn the truth about the actor’s past. Fun discovery: 5 or 6 lines from the film turn up in the Dirty Projectors song “Stillness Is the Move” although I’m not quite sure why or to what end.

Lord of the Flies The film version, directed by Peter Brook. You all read it in middle school, and the film is extremely faithful to William Golding’s novel about boys trapped on an island during World War III. Apparently the relationships between the actors mirrored that of the characters, which Brook took as “evidence” that Golding was right after all. About what? To my eyes, Lord of the Flies seems like a terrible allegory of politics, but a pretty solid one about gender and age. Favorite part: the film opens with a series of stills about the third world war, done in the style of Chris Marker’s La Jetee.

All That Heaven Allows Not my bag, but I can see why people go wild for this stuff. It’s another pairing of Rock Hudson with director Douglas Sirk, with Jane Wyman as the lead, Cary Scott. A widow begins an affair with her gardener, facing gossip and reproach from her grown children and the town. The shots are meticulously composed in suggestive ways, and Hudson really sells his Thoreauvian nonconformity. My favorite sections all involved Cary’s daughter Kay, who views everything through the cold prism of fifties social science. She finds it difficult to turn that critical gaze inward, however, and evaluate her own prejudices. Surely there’s a lesson here, too, for all the psychoanalytic critics who descend on Sirk.

JCVD I wish this was so much better. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, and starring JCVD as himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme. One monstrously entertaining and hilarious open, on a film set, in which JCVD does a long, exhausting, and poor take of an action scene, for an uncaring director. One neat little set up, in which JCVD enters a bank, seems to shoot from inside, and starts making demands over the phone. But the movie gets slow and boring when it takes the time to explain how he got involved in a bank heist in the first place–which doesn’t really deliver us anything we wouldn’t guess from the beginning. Save one extended monologue from Van Damme, in which he is lifted above the set and speaks directly to the audience about his struggle, the movie has nothing to offer in its second half.

Mala Noche Gus Van Sant’s first film, starring Tim Streeter as Walt Curtis, a liquor store clerk who pursues a young latino and ends up involved with his friend. There’s some vivid high contrast black and white, and some indelible shots, like when Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) sticks his head out the car window, and the street lines reflect in his sunglasses. It’s a shaggy dog story, with higher stakes, as Walt offers Johnny’s friends money to sleep with him, looks for him all over town, takes in (and begins a halting relationship with) Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge). The comparison/contrast between gay and latino Portland isn’t easy to make, which is as it should be.

Le Gai Savoir One of Godard’s least comprehensible films, I’m betting, made right when he was diving head-first into Leftist waters.  Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto take over a tv station during May ’68, talk about the revolution, and talk about the revolution in language, man. Long collages of Godard’s handwriting and magazine advertisements follow. I’m out of my depth with this one, though maybe not for long, thanks to . . .

Everything is Cinema -a biographical guide to Godard’s films, by New Yorker critic Richard Brody. I’m only about 300 pages in, which represents the first 13 or so feature lengths. Brody’s claim is that the later films are much better, despite the loftier reception for his early work. I have yet to test this myself. Brody does expertly guide readers through Godard’s 60s films, demonstrating how Godard’s incredibly consistent themes still managed to refract French intellectual and political culture while also staking new aesthetic ground. The most engaging sections argue that Godard’s aesthetic project had inherently political consequences. The big question I have, after reading this, is why Brody isn’t top dog at the New Yorker–he’s light years better than David Denby and Anthony Lane.

Woman in the Dunes Movie of the Week! Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaptation of Kobo Abe’s novel. A teacher and amateur entomologist falls into a village’s trap, and is forced to live at the bottom of a dune with a woman, shoveling sand for the rest of his life. The movie takes its sweet time getting us to that point, but gives its characters’ emotions a chilling immediacy. The central conceit is enormously elastic–just think of any task you’re required to do, day after day, for the rest of your life–but I’m shocked at how well it made me feel that sensation of entrapment. I’m surprised at the places my imagination took me as I considered myself in that man’s place.

Zombieland – What fun. Most zombie movies are about zombie metaphors. Zombies stand in for mindless consumers or the proletariat or whatever, and we judge the survivors based on their success or failure at distinguishing themselves from zombies. This is a movie about what it means to be a survivor–what the zombies are doesn’t matter. Zombies are simply other people, and Zombieland is about loneliness, and what we’re willing to risk to lose that state. I think the Rules for surviving zombieland, which flash onscreen at key points, were a little too MTV, but they did create tension for the rest of the film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – I think this would have looked gorgeous in the theater, but at home I just didn’t care. David Fincher’s adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story is, yeah, about what it means to grow up in a body you don’t like, and how it feels to be born out of time, but I don’t think this movie actually has anything to say about that except, “it sucks, but you learn interesting things.” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), starts old and grows young, then wanders around the world with little motivation except to meet up again with Cate Blanchett. There’s some cute stuff where the film makes little references to the cinematic culture of the time it’s taking place, but not enough to forgive the movie’s listlessness. The frame story, in which Hurricane Katrina threatens to wipe out Blanchett’s character as she’s dying in the hospital, is pointless.

Danton Andrzej Wadja’s retelling of a main conflict following the French Revolution, cast as an analogue for Poland’s suppressed Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Gerard Depardieu stars as the revolutionary icon who calls for Robespierre’s Committee on Public Safety to stop going after people with guillotines. As Danton, Depardieu is relentlessly charismatic, pulling the center of the screen towards him. Wojciech Pszoniak, as Robespierre, is better, telling you everything you need to know about the man with a mere look. I enjoyed the political intrigue, and the characters are kept from being stock hero-and-villain types, but the film loses momentum after Danton’s arrest.

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