Sunday, September 21, 2014

Feature: A Place Beyond the Pines: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the Missing Pieces, and the Legacy of Brutality

This piece appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Cinema Scope.

It’s an odd feeling—in fact, it borders on the disconcerting. Could this be it, the conclusion of the Twin Peaks saga, more than 24 years after ABC first broadcast the show’s pilot episode on an otherwise unexceptional Sunday evening in the spring of 1990? Seemingly so much and so little has transpired in the interim for the show’s creators, its stars, and its legacy alike, and yet its central anomalies are such that the intrigue has only deepened as the years have passed. That disarming ambiguity—that sense of the intangible and unknowable embedded in such elemental visual iconography—has always been an undeniable component of Twin Peaks’ allure. When the show went off the air in June 1991, it concluded with perhaps the most startling reversal in the history of the medium, effectively merging the roles of its primary protagonist and antagonist and upending assumptions and expectations for serialized television in the process. It ended, in other words, perfectly—if also paradoxically and more than a bit perplexingly.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Film Review: Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973)

This review is part of Reverse Shot's Martin Scorsese: He Is Cinema symposium. 

Paint It Black

In 1967, upon seeing Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, Whos That Knocking at My Door, Roger Ebert famously heralded the arrival of a director he felt would prove to be an important new artist. He had remarkable foresight: after all, how many promising filmmakers fail to live up to their potential or, worse, subsequently squander their talent with vapid projects or commercial compromises? Six years later, following sophomore effort Boxcar Bertha—a transitional and, well, compromised exploitation picture for Roger Corman—Scorsese would himself announce his true artistic arrival with Mean Streets. And he would do so pre-credits, with two lines of dialogue that open the film against the vacuum of a blank, black screen: “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets.” These words, more than any critical decree, effectively laid the soil for a thematic landscape whose topography has since proven surprisingly vast. Stylistic seeds were sown in prior efforts, from the use of rock and R&B songs in Whos That Knocking to the restless handheld camerawork and erratic editing experiments of both that film and Boxcar Bertha. But it was the instinctive, holistically integrated flourishes of Mean Streets that would construct a working model for much of Scorsese’s future output.

Film Review: Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley (2013)

This piece appears in the September/October 2014 issue of Little White Lies.

Considering the breadth and intellect of Frederick Wiseman’s filmography, it feels somewhat inevitable that he’d one day take as his subject the province of academia. His second feature, 1968’s High School, first betrayed an interest in educational ethnology and scholastic infrastructure, and he would follow it up with a sequel over two decades later. It has taken until his mid-'80s, however, for the direct cinema pioneer to look toward the domain of higher education. At Berkeley, one in a string of ambitious late career works, at once interrogates the pedagogic/ideologic institutional divide as well as the principal tenets of Wiseman’s cinema itself.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Film Capsule: Edward Yang's Taipei Story (1985)

Taipei Story (1985)
Directed by Edward Yang

This early landmark by the most classical of the New Taiwan Cinema filmmakers is a sombre evocation of Eastern ideology and its conflicted transition into a post-modern context. Co-written by and starring the Taiwanese New Wave’s longest-running figure, Hou Hsiao-hsien, the film depicts in serenely melancholic detail the contrasting mindsets of a young couple fated to pass through different stations amidst a rapidly modernizing Taipei. Hou’s baseball-loving, traditionally minded Lung seems content to exist in the era into which he was born, while his girlfriend, Chin (Tsai Chin), takes her architectural aspirations to heart as she attempts to construct of herself a progressive autonomy divorced from emotion or intimacy. Captured with his typically restrained, lyrical sense of city and psyche, the late Yang’s first masterpiece solidified many of the tendencies he and Hou would continue to refine and redefine in their respective careers for the next decade-plus as contemporaries. (September 21, 7:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image's Hou retrospective) [The L]

TIFF 2014: Wavelengths Features

With TIFFs Wavelengths section broadening a few years back to encompass feature as well as medium-length work in addition to their celebrated annual shorts program, so to has the definition of a Wavelengths film expanded. What was once home to mainly non-narrative, experimental non-fiction and avant-garde cinema has grown to include everything from feature documentaries to future art house releases—the only overriding characteristic being films that, per the program’s own decree, “expand our notion of cinema.” And appropriately, this year’s selection proved perhaps the most wide-ranging yet. A few of the program’s best films, including Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, and Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, have been widely acclaimed at prior festivals. Thus, in an effort to avoid redundancy, I’ll be focusing this coverage instead on a handful of fall premieres.

TIFF 2014: Wavelengths Shorts

An oasis amidst an overwhelming selection of not only premieres and galas, but also independent and foreign language selections, the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual Wavelengths lineup remains arguably the one section a viewer can look toward for consistently innovative, challenging films during an event with an ever-democratic sense of identity. This singularity is attributable to the work of Andréa Picard, head of programming for Wavelengths, whose intuitive sense for the exotic and frequently radical in cinema remains unparalleled in the work of North American festival programming. It’s therefore appropriate that the annual four-night series of avant-garde short film screenings is the heart of her selection as well as TIFF’s most unique, enduring facet. And with the New York Film Festival’s Projections program (formerly Views from the Avant-Garde) now under new guidance—and, judging by their forthcoming lineup, an inclination towards the field’s relatively bigger names (Ben Russell, Jodie Mack, etc.)—the Wavelengths shorts programs continue to stand as the field’s most intimate, carefully curated and progressive event.

Beauty In Imperfection: A Conversation About Try This At Home

Fifteen years in the making, the new film Try This At Home is centered around the 1999 and 2001 editions of the Yo-Yo A Go-Go music festival in Olympia, Washington. As fate would have it, they turned out to be the final editions of the festival, making the movie that Cris Dupont, Thomas Logoreci and Elina Shatkin assembled — then fresh out of UCLA grad school — one of the only documents of the events.

Featuring performances by Elliott Smith, Negativland, the Mountain Goats, the Microphones, C Average, the Lowdown, Jen Wood, the Make-Up and Mecca Normal — and interviews with Calvin Johnson, Phil Elevrum, Ian Svenonius, Mark Hosler, and Mirah, amongst others — Try This At Home bears witness to a landmark moment in indie rock: Not only did 2001 ultimately mark the end of Yo-Yo A Go-Go, it was also the year of Is This It, White Blood Cells, and The Argument — a debut, a breakthrough and a farewell, respectively — three records which symbolize, in contrasting ways, the sound, spirit and ideology of an evolving subculture that was about to have its first brush with the mainstream.

As the Strokes and White Stripes redefined the potential reach of guitar-based bands in the new millennium — and with Fugazi representing a bygone paradigm of regional indie infrastructure — a new generation of DIY artists were now, with the help of the nascent digital revolution, able to find audiences heretofore unimaginable. “It sort of seems like things are changing. But it’s like, I wonder what’ll be next, you know?” wonders Khaela Maricich (The Blow) in one particularly prophetic passage, just before the filmmaker’s cut to a breathtaking performance by the late Elliott Smith. There’s more said in that single edit than most music documentaries manage in their entirety.


TIFF 2014: Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014)

Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, the opening night selection of this year’s Quinzaine des réalisateurs, is a case study in overestimating the capacity of an established methodology. Following the two modest, unassumingly insightful features (the sexual coming-of-age chronicle Water Lilies and Tomboy, an observant examination of adolescent gender awakening), Sciamma’s latest doesn’t expand her thematic spectrum so much as overextend her narrative reach. Again following a young Parisian girl at an ideological crossroads, the film brings dispossessed outsider Marieme (Karidja Touré) together with a trio of tough, nefarious females, who encourage her to change her name and her look as they work to establish their collective identity through methods only intermittently proactive and occasionally dangerous. The film works best as it sets up its character coordinates, pitting the gang of girls against the gaze of the local boys and their interests in contrast to cultural norms. In these moments the camaraderie between the girls is palpable and well-considered—never more so than in a neon-lit, exuberantly synced rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” a potentially disastrous, choreographed performance which skillfully engenders the viewer’s empathy while simultaneously testing the stylistic potential of the obviously industrious Sciamma. From here, however, the film devolves into a series of ever more contrived plot manoeuvres, moving from bullying and violence to pregnancies to dalliances in drug dealing. In an attempt to broaden her creative ontology, Sciamma reduces both her female and male characters to a series of stock, interchangeable personalities that no amount of aesthetic advancement can offset. [CS]

TIFF 2014: Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

Based on a 10th-century Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya represents for its director Takahata Isao—who has claimed that it will be his final film—an appropriately nostalgic, fanciful reconciliation of his primary themes and techniques. Animated in Takahata’s familiar blend of pastel and watercolour abstracts, the film unfolds as a kind of coming-of-age reverie, opening with a whimsical preamble depicting the unusual discovery of the title heroine, who is discovered growing from a bamboo shoot by a woodcutter. Believing the child to be of divine provenance, the woodcutter and his wife adopt Kaguya, preparing her for her royal destiny. Kaguya grows into an emotionally and spiritually conflicted young woman, and her mounting melancholy and curious disinterest in suitors eventually reveal themselves to have otherworldly origins and implications. There’s a casual, intuitive feel to Takahata’s retelling of the fable: he remains faithful to his source even as the seemingly disparate genre elements which he is eventually required to implement take the film far from its humble beginnings. Thus, not unlike the resolve required of its protagonist, a certain faith on behalf of the viewer is necessary in order to stick it out through the film’s somewhat sprawling 140-minute runtime. But as with Miyzaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises—another apparent final testament from one of Studio Ghibli’s co-founders—Kaguya’s pleasures derive from the ease and elegance with which it displays the lessons learned from a lifetime’s worth of creative activity, as well as from the elegiac feeling that this may in fact be the last of its kind. [CS]

Film Capsule: Chris Marker's The Koumiko Mystery (1965)

The Koumiko Mystery (1965)
Directed by Chris Marker

Shot in and around Tokyo during the 1964 Olympic Games, this medium-length feature from the pioneering cinematic essayist subtly shifts from a broad view of the festivities to an intimate examination of a twenty something Japanese woman whose emotional ennui and ethical inquisitiveness reflect a postwar national climate of reappraisal and progression. Alternating between Marker’s observations of and amidst the cultural commotion and the title character’s analytical inquiries on identity and desire, the film casually accumulates a reflexive rhythm of both personal and political portent. Indicative of the director’s cross-continental curiosity, as well as his ever-evolving ability to locate the universal in the highly personal, this portrait of youthful self-reckoning utilizes its inherent ambiguities to propose social and psychological inquiries which reach across national and generational borders. (August 27, 9pm at BAM’s Marker retro, double-featured with Matta) [The L]