Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Remembering: 2001

Picking up where we left off last time...

Jan 2, Le Cinéma des cinéastes, Paris, France
Isn't it almost a parody of movielove to say that I started the year watching In the Mood for Love in a small, plush theater in Paris? Does it get much better than that? As I said about Dancer in the Dark, Parisian audiences are totally fantastic, and as I said about Casablanca, some movies really are better when you see them with someone you love. Living on separate continents for almost a year, and catching this movie during the only two-week visit we could afford, furnished its own fortuitous context. I understood all the plangent moping, and like everyone else, I relished all the noodle-fetching and string-thrumming. The accelerated montage in the last act and the rather heavy ending at Angkor Wat felt like a let-down at the time, and they still sort of do, but not that much of one.

Feb 2, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I've heard people kvetch about In the Mood for Love that it's guilty of some glassy, maudlin exoticizing of Asian femininity, care of Maggie Cheung. I can't at all agree, despite seeing exactly what these people are talking about. Still, if we lived in an improved world where In the Mood for Love was more of a cultural frame of reference than Zoolander, I can see Margaret Cho building a triple-joke into her act, swanning around the stage in a cheongsam, heading to score a snack, pursing her lips like she always does when she's riffing on Orientalist clichés and preening at her own good gag. Margaret loves to joke about stereotypes, about eating, and about Hey, you know what, not all Asians are the same! If she had pulled this gag, I'd have laughed, but it's not like she needs anyone writing material for her, least of all in the triumphant era of I'm the One That I Want, her cathartically exuberant stand-up routine turned invigorating and side-splitting concert film. I saw it at a sold-out campus cinema, thronged almost entirely by out queers and Asian undergrads: a rare synergy for the Cornell community, and from the sound of things, an uproarious time had by all.

Feb 15, Cinema Arts Theatre, Fairfax, VA
Maybe my single favorite thing that I did in graduate school was giving informal talks and leading impromptu Q&As after weekend screenings in the two local arthouses. My first gig like this was for Terence Davies's ravishing adaptation of The House of Mirth. Gillian Anderson is as exquisite an objet here as Maggie Cheung is in Mood, but she suffers more for it. I saw the film three times before leading the talk: the first time, as it happened, with my Mom in Virginia, after an art-friendly company bought an old strip-mall multiplex in our suburb and started playing more adventurous fare. This marked a welcome return to my high school days, when the same strip mall had been the improbable locus of my first viewing of The Piano. I'm still dismayed by the movie's cozy embrace of Lawrence Selden, and The House of Mirth isn't a perfect film, despite all that auburn and purple and icy Adefarasin-style blue. But it's so rich and distinctive that it does make you ask, "Is this film perfect or not perfect?" Very few movies do that. (Anderson, cheated of an Oscar nom, remains a terribly underused actress.)

Mar 2, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I'm only realizing in retrospect that the 2nd of every month was apparently a hot date with destiny that year. Leos Carax's gargantuan, iconoclastic, go-for-broke Melville project Pola X hit me in the plexus more immediately than Beau travail had, exciting me about the grandiosity of his vision and the defiant eccentricity of both adaptations, even though, upon reading Pierre, or the Ambiguities, it turns out that Carax's updating is remarkably faithful in quite a few particulars. The shock, I suppose, is that the book is no less berserk than this punk-rock, low-lit, porn-laced saga, where the climactic vision of two incestuous lovers bobbing down a river of blood seems barely more provocative than the dialogue scenes and the perverse domestic atmospheres. I was in such a good mood after this brazen, critic-flouting spectacle that I took myself out to dinner at a restaurant where all I could afford was dessert.

Mar 4, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
"Who's that, and what's he doing here?": the compound question floating over my head as a dozen students trudged wearily into an assigned screening of all 9½ hours of Shoah. I wasn't in the class, but had heard about the showing from a friend of someone who was, and I couldn't imagine missing it. Bravo, Claude Lanzmann, and God bless the private universities that can afford to rent a theatrical print for a pedagogical occasion like this.

Mar 10, Fall Creek Pictures and Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
I didn't even remember until flipping back through my records for this entry that my first of two theatrical viewings of Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls happened earlier on the same day that I raced up the hill to see David Gordon Green's buzzy indie picture George Washington. That has to count as a pretty great day, and though I'd never thought of the two films in conjunction, and indeed they have little in common, you could certainly do worse for an aesthetically heightened double-feature of off-center, allowably self-besotted visions of late 20th-century life at the margins of America.

Apr 4, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
For a movie I don't really love, Bridget Jones's Diary has been awfully good to me. I won a $50 gift card that was taped under my chair at the sold-out advanced screening I attended (I split it with the friend who had moved over a seat when the first one I dropped into had a broken spring right where you don't want one). The review I wrote remains my only one to get reproduced in its entirety on a mass-market DVD. V.v.g., if you ask me.

Apr 15, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
For a movie about an extreme amnesiac, and one that prompted a whole lotta hubbub at the time, Memento rises up in my memory a lot less often than I had expected, back when I was paying to see it four times in the theater. Again, I had scored the duty of leading an audience talkback on opening weekend. Expecting to have to answer a lot of questions about the intricacies of the plot (which, as I recall now, maybe aren't that intricate?), I kept coming back for more. But I wasn't just being diligent. I was compulsively transfixed by the film, despite its rather twee conclusion. (Why do movies with elaborately unusual protagonists so often feel the need to push that character as some kind of stand-in for us?) These days, there's not a thing in Memento—save for Carrie-Anne Moss barking the name "Dodd" in clipped exasperation—that's as clear in my memory as the log-jam sequence in Nolan's Insomnia, which I think is his best movie. But one of the pleasures of maniacal filmgoing is getting hooked on a picture that, a few years later, is a fond token but little more.

May 9, Cinemapolis, Ithaca, NY
One of the owners of the same arthouse, aka one of the Executive Directors, after they made the place nonprofit, called me on Friday, May 4, to say that Amores perros, which had opened that day in his theater, was one of the best films he had ever seen. And this fellow has got at least 30 years and probably thousands off movies on me. You can't quite say that I raced over, since I didn't check in till the following Wednesday, but Amores perros, I was stunned to concede, was as pulverizing as he had said. If anything, I liked the middle story with the pet beneath the floor boards even more than he did. Does Alejandro González Iñérritu have anything else in him that's close to this level? It makes a strong argument as one of the decade's most astonishing debuts.

Jun 2, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Bliss! Elation! Moulin Rouge! The thrill of a movie I expected to like, turning out to be a movie I fell madly in love with! When did I know? The silhouetted, caffeinated conductor over the 20th Century Fox fanfare was a strong tip-off, but the Nirvana refrain and the phalanx of top-hatted, tail-coated Cobain-manqués was the point of no return. And who would want to return? This movie had me exactly where it wanted me. How unusually often that happened at the multiplex in 2001.

Jun 27, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Michael Powell's early film The Edge of the World is one I've never re-watched, but the sheer tactility of the sere, craggy landscapes, the cold air, and the roiling water made for pretty stupendous viewing. My second Powell on the big screen, after Peeping Tom two years previously, and unlike anything I had seen from the late 1930s, which for me was a period almost entirely defined by Hollywood interiors, aerial adventures, and the odd Technicolor riot.

Jun 29, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
I remember hopping on the #30 bus after a summertime teacher-training course to go see A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which no one I knew seemed to have any interest in. As I've said before: why are the Spielberg pictures that other people don't like or care about so often the Spielbergs that really click for me? I totally dug the unprecedented spectacle of a Spielberg film being seized by panic and by sawing, swooping strings, and of the film disappearing into its own worrying restlessness, over and over and over again. Call it "too many endings" if you want, and I can't really disagree, but for once, this felt less like overkill and more like a terrified resistance of closure, of mortality—or maybe an inability to disengage from a protagonist and a trajectory in which Spielberg surely sees parts of himself, and not the cuddliest parts?

Jun 30, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Raging Bull had impressed me a few years previously on video, which I can only assume was a pan-and-scan VHS, but is it safe to say that I thought De Niro occasionally overdid it? Maybe I was just surprised that the arc of the brother affected me more than the rotund auto-defamation of the brutish boxer. But sometimes, I'm sure I have compared a movie unfairly to what I had heard or expected it to be, and part of Raging Bull's galvanizing appeal on second viewing had to do with being prepared for the fact that its sympathies and tragic orientations weren't completely bound up with Jake. But character and feeling aside, I obviously hadn't seen the movie. No one has without seeing Michael Chapman's limber, widescreen, monochrome photography as hulking and large as life, and hearing the low-frequency rumble of the enervating sound design, and hearing the foley work over Thelma Schoonmaker's assaultive edits. Whatever Raging Bull is, it is this by alternating the fury of the ring with the torpid meanness of life Chez LaMotta. By making the former more vivid, the bitter despondency and scary emptiness of the latter were easier to feel. And like everyone else, Pauline Kael aside, my admiration for the movie broke right through the roof.

Jul 30, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10 and Fall Creek Pictures, Lansing, NY, and Ithaca, NY
Sometimes the movies in question have little to do with the potency of the memory. I recall hunching on that same bus, the #30, mentally urging the driver to go faster on the way back to Ithaca after I'd just seen Jurassic Park III at the mall in nearby Lansing, so that I'd arrive in time for the 7:15 downtown show of Songcatcher, in which Janet McTeer plays a musicologist in late-19th or early=20th century Appalachia, where her prize pupil is newcomer Emmy Rossum. The swift, impatient juxtaposition of these two entertainments surprised even me. Was anyone else, anywhere, having precisely this problem? Raise your hand if you plunked down cash for these two titles, to say nothing of doing so on the same day.

Aug 17, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7, Arlington, VA
Apologies for going all Angie-on-Oscar-night on you, but I was so in love with my brother this day. He drove a half-hour out of his way while I was visiting home so that we could go to see a Tilda Swinton movie, The Deep End, which meant nothing to him and everything to me. He actually liked the movie, too, though I remember watching his dawning realization of how many gay couples were in the audience (a new thing for him, at the time). I was excited to see one of my tip-top favorite actresses of the 90s working such unusually commercial or at least relatively commercial material, and doing so in such style. Even if the film still seems a bit too compacted, rushing toward a climax that really needs more time to tease out the needed frisson between the characters, I was just happy to see her in a starring role. And I still love the touch by which Goran Visnjic's turtleneck-and-blazer ensemble at the end is a virtual replica of the outfit Tilda's wearing near the beginning.

Sep 20, Fall Creek Pictures, Ithaca, NY
Apocalypse Now Redux was the first movie I saw in a theater after September 11, and I'm surprised to see how long I waited—if only because, the way I remember it, I was there on the 13th or 14th. Here's what I recall: the whole theater was palpably full of nervous tension and a kind of exhausted grief. Something else, too, though I might just have been projecting myself onto others (imagine!): a kind of tetchy, defensive guilt at convening for, of all things, this florid snapshot of a misbegotten, narcotized, deranged America making a tactical and a psychological muck out of a martial theater where they never belonged. Was Apocalypse Now a tasteless thing to watch in the wake of what had just happened to the country, and to the world? And, even more darkly, was it a proleptic sign of ruins and mad follies soon to follow? The Iraq : Vietnam analogy is loudly imprecise, and anyway, the Iraq War wasn't at all what I had in mind in September of 2001, even as a guess. And frankly, once the movie started, after the strained minutes of silence amid the gathering crowd, where nobody had showed up in the company of anyone else, I didn't think about anything except the movie. I've been made to understand many times that Redux is some kind of travesty, but I really liked the re-encounter with the USO girls in those soiled helicopters, and the French plantation scenes work fine by me, too, even if I'm only making allowances as an Aurore Clément devotée. But the real issue is: I've seen Apocalypse Now twice, once in its 1979 version, at too young an age and on a too-small TV, and once in the Redux incarnation in stentorian sound and huge, and in vibrant hues, the colors of a handful of jungle vipers, of thick and pestiferous gases. Sue me, purists, for thinking of this as a pretty definitive evening in my moviegoing life.

Oct 1, Cornell Cinema (Willard Straight), Ithaca, NY
Persona on the big screen, as white as ice and pristine as glass. The company of dear friends; scrupulous projection in a satisfying space; one of the orienting masterworks of the medium. What else is there to say? A cue from Ullmann: say nothing. Let the work speak for itself. Does any movie speak for itself better than Persona does?

Nov 18, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
If you're a scholar of film studies, or even a veteran of one or two classes, you not only know Laura Mulvey's work, you practically sigh, whether with affection or fatigue, at the invocation of her name. (I'm an admirer.) No one has written a more widely anthologized essay in film theory than Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," an unexpected outcome for an early-career polemic which she herself seems to view with some ambivalence, even regret. Meanwhile, her astonishing film Riddles of the Sphinx, co-directed with Peter Wollen, which offers one possible translation of the radical feminist counter-cinema she theorizes in the ubiquitous essay, remains all but impossible to see. Why on earth would this be? Reading Mulvey without seeing her films is like reading Brecht's theories of the stage without having any chance to scan how he realizes those notions in his own playwriting. Riddles of the Sphinx has an entire grammar of its own, full of slow circular pans, psychedelic color baths, static shots, and a final scene that's an exquisitely protracted close-up on one of those maddening pocket-games where you have to move a blob of liquid mercury into the center of an exasperating maze. I was rapt from start to finish, and now that Women Make Movies is finally distributing a DVD, you owe it to yourself to check it out, or to hound somebody or some local institution that has the money to buy a copy, or at least to book a screening on your behalf.

Dec 2, Cornell Cinema (Uris), Ithaca, NY
Yes, what everyone says about Rohmer is that his characters chat and chat and chat, and so they do, sublimely so in his melancholic romantic dramedy The Green Ray. It's one for all the single ladies, all the single ladies (whoa-oa-oa!) and for all their devoted allies. Still, for all that talk, The Green Ray closes on maybe the most breathtaking image I've ever seen at the end of any film, and there's not a word said, for minutes of exquisite, patient, awestruck, nerve-fraying, tearful, hopeful, gorgeously chromatic silence. It works on a TV screen (I've checked), but it's the very definition of "you really need to see it in a theater."

Dec 7, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
Ah, the evening of Ocean's Eleven, an under-appreciated masterwork of modern pop, and a film even shiftier and more weightlessly, fleetly debonair than its characters. No. Small. Feat. I saw it again with the same friend the following evening, and I usually avoid Friday or Saturday nights at the movies at all costs, the way other people avoid—well, the way they avoid most of the movies that I like.

Dec 19, Hoyts Pyramid Mall 10, Lansing, NY
The peaks of my moviegoing year ended where they began. Okay, not in Paris, but at least alongside my partner, and though I promise not to keep harping on my couplehood, you do need to understand: I saw more movies in the cinema this past Saturday than Derek has seen all year, and that's often the way it goes. In a year and a half of dating in Ithaca, which is not a town that overflows with recreational outlets, he had never been with me to the multiplex. He didn't even know how to get there, and had never sounded interested in any movie that was playing up there. So, color me surprised when one morning at breakfast, he exclaims, "I didn't know they made a movie of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring! We have to go!" Turns out that my merry, opera-loving aesthete was a card-carrying member (literally!) of something called The Fellowship back in elementary school, which involved lots of intricate maps, Celtic font, mailed "newsletters," and Middle Earth recipes that a fifth-grader with a patient parent could make. Anyway: I didn't see this coming, nor did I expect the cultural juggernaut that the Jackson franchise became. But as that raft shot down that river with the Orcs pounding through the trees in implacable pursuit, I clutched my arm rest and felt again how alive I always am at a full-throttle Movie.

Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2001 (Chronological):
L'Atalante, Querelle (review), Happy Together, Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (review), Mary Poppins, Woman in the Dunes, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Tempest, The Immigrant, Swing Time, Baby Doll, New York, New York, Spanking the Monkey, Sleepaway Camp, Closely Watched Trains, and Last Year at Marienbad



Blogger Catherine said...

Ha, we didn't have to wait long for the next installment!

Oh, The Fellowship of the Ring. I'm not sure, but I think my first viewing of that (the first of six times I went to see it) is my favourite ever cinematic memory. Reading that last sentence "..that raft shot down that river with the Orcs pounding through the trees in implacable pursuit, I clutched my arm rest and felt again how alive I always am at full-throttle movies" actually made me a little misty-eyed, because I have such a vivid memory of feeling the exact same way, and that ending always reduced me to a blubbering mess.

I also love the detail of your partner being a huge LOTR-phile back in the day, because I can totally relate. My uncle had pressed Tolkien's ouevre on me as a wee girl and by the time Peter Jackson's film was announced I was already a devotee, having read the trilogy twice the whole way through. We went as a family to see it; my parents, the 11-year old me and my younger sister, and it only hit me in retrospect what a committment I was setting my parents, neither of whom had any interest - or so they assumed - in a 3-hour-long quest film about goblins and magic rings. During the next three hours, the four of us all absolutely fell in love with it and we made a point of going as a quartet to see the next two installments on their opening nights.

Also, I'm so jealous you saw Persona on the big screen!

5:00 AM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

Am totally besotted with this series, already. You've revived my nagging doubt about whether I actually like Nolan's Insomnia more than Memento -- very possible, and they should probably both be on my top 100 list. Insomnia's the one I'd most like to watch again right this second. And I love how vividly you get AI. It's Spielberg's most vertical film, right? That score yo-yoing up and down. Jude Law being plucked up into the sky. Haley plunging deep. Totally dig not just the movie but your take on it as a restless abyss of a thing, pinging us up and down. I remember seeing it only about a week after 9/11, too, which... well, you can imagine.

6:14 AM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

I can only echo what others have already said: this is an absolute goldmine of a series, one that makes me wish I'd kept such a detailed cineaste's diary -- and gives me a fun new year's resolution in the process.

(I actually did keep exactly such a record as a child, though it sadly fell away. Just one example of how much wiser I was as an 8 year-old than I am now. Sigh.)

Anyway, I can at least remember one specific movie-going date from 2001, and it very happily coincides with one of yours. While you were bathing in the auburns and blues of "The House of Mirth" on post-Valentine's day, I was in Johannesburg making a day of it by skiving off an English lecture to catch a midday show of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" with my best friend, before rowdier evening festivities.

The occasion? My 18th birthday. I'm glad we both coincidentally celebrated it with such lushly beautiful films.

6:52 AM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

How boring that I have to be yet another rave for this excellent series. As m'man Nigel Lythgoe said on TV last night, you're annoyingly brilliant.

So glad you brought up "Memento," a movie that I too don't think about nearly as much as I thought I would. I should give it a rewatch soon, if only because I recall totally raving about Carrie-Ann Moss's performance at the time, and her career (or lack thereof) since then has made me wonder if I was seeing things.

11:11 AM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Catherine: What a great thing that you and your family held to that tradition.

@Tim: "Vertical" is a great way to describe A.I.... and I'm eager to see Insomnia again, too. I only caught it once, while it was in theaters, but so much of it still feels pretty indelible.

@Guy: Note that I am not asking about the rowdier evening festivities. My first screening of Crouching Tiger almost made the '00 list, since editor Tim Squyres was in attendance and gave great interview. Hilariously, I think Ang Lee was there, too, but I am not positive, because Squyres's commentary was so fascinating to me.

@Joe: She was quite good in that movie. I think the meltdown of the Matrix franchise undeservedly swallowed her up. I'm sure that various casting directors think it's too hard to look at her and not think of Trinity, though I actually think of her in Memento and (gulp) Chocolat first when she comes to mind. Even Models, Inc. This, of course, has much to do with my general habit of repressing The Matrix.

11:28 PM, December 02, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

I know everyone's moved over to the newer post, and I know you've gone on to recount an astounding Valentine's Day there, but I still feel compelled to chime in and say that despite your "promise not to keep harping on [your] couplehood", I wish you would! What is cinephilia, after all, but a couplehood that we write about in the hope to find others who understand and share in our joy, and to deepen our own knowledge of our selves and desires? I'm so glad to know that you've found Derek to be a necessary and wondrous texture to your living experience (and I'm sure you've been the same for him), and I'm always grateful to hear it when people know to appreciate their blessings as you so often do, and in such vivid retellings as well. Cheers!

6:14 PM, December 03, 2009  
Blogger JKlorfein said...

I love this series, and it's refreshing to see a personal decade wrap-up, rather than a last minute, chart-icle cram session that makes one push "Rock My World" to the bottom of the Netflix queue because "Flight of the Red Balloon" has to be seen within 25 days.

I'm intrigued, though: "Mulholland Dr" seems to be considered by many as one of the most memorable cinematic experiences in the past decade. Did you not see it in theatres, or did it just not do it for you?

Looking forward to '05.

8:12 PM, December 05, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Very sweet of you to say. Thanks!

@Jason: I debated including that one for a long time, but I'm actually co-writing a longer post about that film on someone else's blog, which oughta drop in the next few weeks, so I'm saving up the juice for that conversation. I would also say, the oneiric quality of that movie, which kept shape-shifting across all three times I saw it in the theater, have made the different occasions a bit hard to tease out from each other, so it would have been pretty hard to disentangle them all. And I'm trying to keep the series spry by avoiding the temptation to write about all my faves and sticking with the outings which themselves stand out in my memory. So glad you're enjoying the series!

10:57 PM, December 05, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

I just saw Querelle for the first time, about a week ago, and I'm still trying to mentally process it. I'm not at all familiar with Genet's work and the only other Fassbinder film I've seen is Fox and his Friends, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Brad Davis was the main reason I wanted to see it. I kinda have an obsession with him right now, after watching him in both Cold Steel, a revenge pic with a pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone, and Mrs. Reindhart, a BBC melodrama with Helen Mirren, as well as reading After Midnight, his biography written by his widow. The odd thing is that I don't find him a particularly good actor. To me, his line readings often fall flat and he often appears too self-conscious. But for some reason I just find him mesmerizing.

4:47 PM, December 10, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@CCW: "For some reason"... it surely can't be his atrocious looks, right?

12:36 AM, December 11, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

@Nick: Oh, of course =) Well, honestly, it is a large part. In his wife's book, she notes that a number of his female co-stars (including Moreau, Mirren, Rue McClanahan and Jill Clayburgh) were quite smitten with him off-screen.

10:25 PM, December 11, 2009  

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