Monday, December 07, 2009

Remembering: 2006

Yet another major move, this time to Chicago, the largest and in many ways the richest film market I've ever called home (though Boston doesn't go down without a fight). Among other things, this means seeing even more movies per year than I ever have before. I thought these write-ups would get shorter and easier as they went, since it's harder for recent viewings to have the same sort of personal-milestone resonance of a more distant and oft-revisited memory. But I am my own ball and chain! I see too many movies, and still care too much about them! Honestly, I'm glad to feel I haven't been jaded out of the hyper-permeability to so many new experiences.

Jan 2, UA Fairfax Towne Center, Fairfax, VA
For reasons discussed earlier, I blame The Cell for the number of bad horror movies I have sat through, hoping to find another undervalued gem, hiding in a genre that many critics implicitly regard with disdain (though obviously, many critics don't). From this standpoint, the strongly buzzed Wolf Creek was major recompense for some dismal hours in the theater, and proof that the strong mid-90s return to hard gore and sadistic story-structures doesn't necessarily obviate artistic potential. I actually think Wolf Creek does wonderfully at initially capturing the strained vibe among three carefree semi-acquaintances on a road trip. The sheer senselessness of what happens to them comes through all the more strongly for the fact that movie hasn't obviously "led" to it, and the automotive mishap and circumstantially welcome overture from an oddball stranger are unnervingly plausible. Even the stakes of who lives and who doesn't, and how, feel brutally accidental in a way that most horror films avoid. There's very little moral judgment, and no obvious schematics. Meanwhile, there is an abundance of razor-sharp framing and cutting, enough to give me pause when I'm tempted to repudiate the genre altogether amid the rising but hopefully ebbing sea of torture-porn. Months later, I gabbed about movies with a pair of Australians I met in a café, having just coincidentally seen The Proposition the day before. The Aussies said, "There's a much better horror film from back home from a couple years ago, but most Americans haven't heard of it," and when I asked if they meant Wolf Creek, their look of excited gratification was totally priceless. A great moment of how much it matters to us when other people share our pleasures and frames of reference, either or especially when you're not expecting them to.

Jan 15, Lincoln Plaza Cinema 6, New York, NY
Caché, a high-water mark in my moviegoing career with Nathaniel, was one of those moments where the venue and its audience made the whole experience indelibly more interesting. The whole, mostly moneyed, Upper West Side-y crowd of Manhattanites was positively gripped through the taut, thriller-ish buildup. You could tell based on when they gasped, how still they were, how no one was going to the bathroom or whispering to their neighbors—and we all know how rare that is in a cinema full of older folks. As the second hour makes clear that Caché is critiquing its own well-to-do characters and dredging up their own guilt-inducing complicities in personal and political misdeed, you could feel the audience turning against the film. Perfect proof, as far as I was concerned, that the movie was working gloriously well. More whispering, more pee breaks, even though I defy anyone to say that Caché gets any less suspenseful as it unfolds. As we filed out, because the Lincoln Plaza is cramped and its patron demographic doesn't move all that fast, there was plenty of time to eavesdrop. "Did you understand that movie?" "I couldn't figure out what it was about." "Do you think it had a message?" "I liked it for a while, but then it seemed so unsure what it was trying to say." Hmmm. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't. Maybe you're confused and maybe you're not.

Jan 21, Crown Plaza 17 and Odyssey, Hartford, CT
So, we're all still perplexed, right, about how many versions of The New World actually exist, and how many of them we've seen, individually or collectively, and whether we even know which one(s) we've seen. The only advantage to this is that the agnostic reports I'd been hearing from Tim and from others were based on an early preview cut that turned out not to be the trimmer film that platformed outward in late January, though it seems that New Line actually released the longer, baggier version back in December for the qualifying run in New York or Los Angeles. Whatever, all of that got tossed out the window in the face of a simpler sentiment: the movie is wonderful. The way I see it, it's like a pre-colonial, unevenly "realistic" version of that scene in Angels in America where Harper and Prior permeate each other's fantasies. I see John Smith having a dream about America, and Pocahontas having a dream about England, which amounts to each having a darkly romantic dream about the other, and the film is like a fine, prismatic crystal formed of the pressures and light from all of that subjective projection. How Malick has, in two successive movies, enabled surely the best work ever produced by Hans Zimmer and James Horner, two of the most notorious felons among blue-chip Hollywood composers, is as grand a testament as any to his alchemical talents. Emmanuel Lubezki, a craftsman who needs no assistance from anybody, conducts his own jaw-dropping symphony of 100% natural-source lighting. I'd rank it up there with the three or four most impressive technical accomplishments I witnessed over the course of the decade. I'm just sad that Lubezki has personally assassinated the entire families of so many Oscar voters. Or, I'm sorry, do you have another theory as to why he still hasn't won?

Mar 19, Cinema City 4, Hartford, CT
If The New World was confusingly released and then re-released, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was maybe the worst-distributed film in recent memory. Already at Cannes, getting shunted into the final spot of the competition, the time-honored Palermo Shooting/Map of the Sounds of Tokyo window where everyone has stopped caring, was poor fortune enough. It's amazing that Melquiades still copped two major prizes, for Actor and Screenplay, although with Toni Morrison on the jury, it's not hard to see this rigorous investigation of America's topographical, political, and psychological borderzones generating lots of good will. All the same, Sony Pictures Classics seemed to do everything possible to squander any possible audience, banking on one of those one-week NYC/LA releases that never, ever works and then waiting all the way till March to bring the film back out. You won't get any argument from most bloggers that film-release scheduling is often completely baffling and disproportionately December-heavy, but at risk of being self-righteous, that doesn't mean we should drop the ball on these movies when they do eventually roll around. Even if Melquiades opened too late to be on almost anyone's Best of 2005 list, it was irrefutably one of the year's best American films, as beveled and narratively satisfying as a top-drawer novel, and unpredictably funny despite its urgency and power. Why Barry Pepper can't build a steadier career is a riddle for which I have no answer, though the recent hoopla around Melissa Leo and January Jones and the 2007 "comeback" buzz around Tommy Lee Jones were all less surprising for anyone who saw this picture. I hope he's saving up the money for a second movie. I'll see it on opening day, no matter what month some genius or dullard has picked for that opening day.

May 1, Cinestudio, Hartford, CT
I reviewed the movie long, long ago, so long ago that I can only assume the review is now embarrassing. I also blogged about my rediscovery of the film in sublimely restored 35mm, so what else is there left to say except - please do your best not to die before you've seen Days of Heaven. Luckily, I moved west even faster than Richard, Linda, and Brooke do in the movie, so after catching this restoration on the East Coast, I was primed for it the following autumn when the same print landed at the Music Box in Chicago.

May 3, Cinestudio, Hartford, CT
You already know that Dave Chappelle's Block Party was not only one of my most fun memories of 2006 but is also one of my favorite movies of all time. Just showing a snippet of this film in place of the "Walk, Do Not Run..." placard at the outset of most movie screenings would probably elate me so much that I would like every single film I ever saw. For the rest of 2006, in the middle of snoozefests like Hollywoodland or The Queen, while Helen Mirren answered the phone yet again and said, "MISter Blair!", I would just free-associate backward to the snazzily bereted Talib Kweli laughing at his own rhymes, or spiffy-coated Erykah Badu waving the world's hugest Afro in the breeze, or Dave telling a small-dick joke to beat the band. Even Jill Scott's prodigious self-love, mercifully backed up by her beautiful voice and hearty stage presence, was incalculably preferable to anything in wan Academy missives like The Illusionist and Venus. If no one had released anything all year except Dave Chappelle's Block Party, I woulda made out fine. I'm cool with Dave resting on his laurels for a while, though if this man can actually get Lauryn Hill bouncing around a stage as late as 2004, I feel like we should poll him for his ideas about pulling out of Afghanistan and about protecting the public option in the health-care bill. His gifts of persuasion are obviously going under-exploited.

May 10, The IFC Center, New York, NY
Speaking of untapped potentials, when I wrote about seeing the Cremaster Cycle in the 2004 entry and rejoiced at all of the windows it afforded into the unbroached possibilities of film art, I'll admit that I soft-pedaled the issue of whether these films were a dead-end for Barney himself, or whether he had anything more to give as a moviemaker. Drawing Restraint 9 proved to me that he does. His aesthetic is obviously persistent, but so are those of almost any other interesting artist. DR9 made galvanizing impressions and generated profound and fascinating force from its guiding idioms of marine life, Asiatic sign systems, ritual, constraint, and a kind of deductive principle of art and wonder—finding the sculpture inside a block, finding the ambergris inside the whale, finding the fish inside a hacked-up human. (That is, if you consider Björk a human.) Barney's methods don't change all that much, but based on whatever he's thinking about, he does yield legitimately new ideas. I understand why he's playing hard to get, and I'm all for Benjaminian aura, but it still kills me that it's impossible to see his work on DVD. The widely rentable documentary Matthew Barney: No Restraint gives you some idea, as does Björk's soundtrack album, which is easily, easily, easily my favorite thing she's done in the increasingly gonzo-minimalist years since Dancer in the Dark Still, neither the doc nor the disc is any real substitute for the film—a happy first encounter, by the way, with the Independent Film Channel's cinema complex on 6th Avenue and Third Street, still pretty new at that time.

Jul 22, AMC River East 21, Chicago, IL
I wrote my review of Lady in the Water the same day I saw it, and I've only had four thoughts about it since. One is that I wish it had been called The Passion of the Narf. Second, I was glad for my friend Ann's peccadillo where she will only sit in the back row of the theater, because it meant we were as far away as possible from Lady in the Water, and so none of it got on me. Third, I am aghast to discover this was my first in-cinema experience after arriving in Chicago, which if I'd thought about it too much might have pushed me to move. Lastly, though, and by far the most importantly, it marked the occasion for my single favorite exchange I ever overheard in a movie theater:

GUY #1 in front of me:
Who's in this?

GUY #2
Paul Giambatti.

GUY #1:

GUY #2
From that movie where all the white people were drinking the wine.

Aug 7, Facets Cinematheque, Chicago, IL
Facets had been a godsend when I discovered it from Ithaca. I know I rented my first VHS of 7th Heaven from them, even though their website gave fair warning of the poor quality of the transfer. When you paid in for the first rental-by-mail, for a hefty $35, you automatically got two more for free. I can't remember what mine were, but suffice it to say that Facets was already a temple in my mind and I was a frequent haunter of their website well before I had any notion of ever living in Chicago. So I was very excited to visit the premises, and even more excited when my first screening there, of Robinson Devor's Police Beat, turned out to be such a winsome, unusual, and appealing movie: unmistakably from the Pacific Northwest, and totally blithe about being as anecdotal, as multilingual, and as narratively elusive as it wanted to be. Among the current stable of so-called "true independents" who have made their mini-forays into the arthouse circuit, I'm more interested to see what Devor keeps doing than what Kelly Reichardt or Ramin Bahrani or some others come up with, though every one of them has been a vital contributor to the way in which I've experienced post-Y2K American movies, especially as most of what passes for "indie" film has turned out to be so abjectly miscategorized.

Aug 12, LaSalle Bank Cinema, Chicago, IL
Another glorious occasion for hitting a venue that I'd been curious about for a long time, coupled with another tale of a first face-to-face meeting with a personal hero among movie-bloggers. This time, the starring role is played by Mike Phillips, aka Goatdog, and the venue was the LaSalle Bank Cinema, now the Bank of America Cinema, where Mike is the programmer, projectionist, ticket-taker, and all-around impresario. One of my hugest failings as a Chicagoan and as a friend is that I trek out to this moviehouse so much less than I should. It's only open on Saturday night, though Mike has invited me out for his own pre-screenings of his films on Thursday evenings. There is no marquee, meaning the movie is entirely patronized by people who've read a plug in a local paper or, much more often, who are inveterate regulars. My impression upon showing up for Mutiny on the Bounty was not only that this was a markedly older crowd, which makes sense since the theater only shows movies made before 1960, but that they functioned as a kind of proud secret society. They all appeared to know each other, they all showed up on cue. They thrilled to Mutiny on the Bounty, some of them with kids in tow whom I took to be grandchildren, and the size of the screen is pretty tremendous—larger than anything you're likely to conceive when confronted with the idea of a movie theater built into the back of a branch office for a bank. Mike, of course, is a complete and absolute doll and a generous pal. Along with his illimitable personal virtues, he also knows everything, everything, everything about classic Hollywood. Though I suppose, to our way of life, that is a personal virtue in itself.

Aug 16, DocFilms, Chicago, IL
Mike and I disagreed, though, about Andy Warhol's Vinyl, his single-setup take on A Clockwork Orange where various Factory personalities like Ondine and Edie Sedgwick sort of laze in the foreground, once audibly asking Warhol whether he wants them to do anything else, while some kind of complicated, inscrutable act of sex and/or torture transpires behind them. The movie is about an hour long, and while it's funny in ways that most Warhol movies are, meaning that I find it impossible to remember the jokes the minute I leave the cinema, it's also unnerving, and it insinuates a stark connection between sadism and boredom that the smooth, arch, discomfiting, even distracting mise-en-scène of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, always flirting with a charmed view of Alex, mostly sets aside, or asserts through narrative but not style, or takes on faith, or simply omits. I haven't read the novel, so I can't get into which of these movies is the "truer" version of Burgess's vision, but as my first opportunity to see a Warhol film on screen, Vinyl was certainly a thought-provoker. If only my commute down to the Hyde Park theater hadn't taken longer each way than the actual movie.

Sep 13, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
Crank, representing a new and important genre, le cinéma de Redbull. A movie where Epinephrine is not only a crucial prop but a sort of patron saint for the whole project. Irreverent to the point of merry vulgarity, but also breathtakingly energetic, and very funny. Another major wake-up call of how much you miss, not just from the standpoint of pleasure but from the standpoint of art, or at least narrative-film possibility, if you only stick to the "prestige" stuff. I'd have voted for Crank as Best Picture over almost any movie nominated during its year, or almost any nominee of the previous year or the subsequent one. It wipes the floor with last year's lot. I think what Benjamin Button needed was a good waffle-iron to the hand, and then he might have snapped the fuck out of it already.

Sep 29, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
You'll gather how lucky I am to work in the campus latitudes of Evanston when I tell you that I saw Crank and Jesus Camp in the same multiplex, a broadly bifurcated affair where the 12 screens of pop essentially pay for the 6 screens of art, though the very inclusion of all of them under one roof has the tendency to blur their audiences in exciting ways. Academics moan, with good reason, that we never really clock out of our jobs—especially in an era where e-mails from colleagues and students never stop and the expectations of swift responses grow stricter and stricter, and where you repair home from a full day of teaching, colloquia, course preparation, and heavy administrative work only to start your second job, which involves writing your own scholarly material to eventually publish, so as to keep your place at the table. But let's also admit: having a porous workday has as many good sides as bad, and the fact that I can often make a personal contract to work two more hours into the night if it means sneaking off to the multiplex for a midday matinée is a pretty fantastic deal. Though it can have hidden costs. I was pretty much a wreck of doubts, nerves, and heebie-jeebies after I saw Jesus Camp, and was in no shape to debate curricular review proposals with my co-workers. But, you pull through these things, even with Becky Fischer's voice in your head, explicitly calling for the training and deploying of an entire nation of zealous Christian soldiers to meet and surpass the militancy of Muslim extremists. Liberals often get in a habit of thinking that people like Becky fail to perceive this kind of symmetry. In other words, don't they get it that their own fundamentalism rivals that of the people they hate, that mega-churches aren't all that different from Taliban training grounds? And it turns out, of course they get this, or at least Becky does. To her, it's the point.

Oct 6, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
Hanging out with Mike again, to see The Departed. No sound all the way through the company logos, which seems surprising for a Scorsese movie. Then no sound through the opening images, which seems even more unusual for excitable Marty. Then it becomes clear: there just isn't any sound. The staff attempts to palliate us by turning on the sound but resuming from the same point where we stopped. A roused army of filmheads aren't having it. We need those sound cues! And while they're at it, Mike lets them know, it'd be nice if the whole screen were in focus. After some heavy rounds of negotiation, the filmheads win. From where I'm sitting, Mike emerges as the MVP for our team. From some points of view, the Cinemark staff was just sparing us yet another retread of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," but given that I am firmly in the pro-Departed camp and think it's a meaty, bloody, flavorful, perfectly honorable vehicle to have earned Marty's long-deferred Oscar, I am glad I got to see it in focus, and that I'd come with My Favorite Part-time Projectionist. I'm also happy to leave with a free voucher for my next Cinemark movie, which decisively tips the balance in favor of seeing Infamous the following week.

Oct 13, Landmark Centry Centre Cinema, Chicago, IL
Not only does Syndromes and a Century showcase Apichatpong Weerasethakul going an enviable four-for-four with excellent movies every time out of the blocks, but it more than equals my tremendous excitement at buying my very first ticket to a film-festival screening. I just hate that I had to buy it through Ticketmaster, which a couple months earlier had routed my Mariah Carey tickets to some person called Wanda on the South Side and didn't even apologize, but I'd learn quickly how to work around them. Anyway, you've all heard me say plenty in the last four years about the CIFF, but this is where it started. My second ticket, immediately following, was for Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates, an unfettered ode through the first 45 minutes to the pathetic fallacy so dear to teenaged poets ("Our emotions are reflected in the earth and its seasons!"), so I walked out. But that's what film festivals are for. The brilliant with the off-putting. You just hope the former wins out. In this case, it did.

Oct 22, Landmark Centry Centre Cinema, Chicago, IL
The academic book I am writing has to do with the legacy of contemporary queer cinema as it was journalistically proclaimed, scholastically elaborated, and popularly embraced in the early 1990s. My concern is that the professed rubric was never complete enough to encompass all of the most interesting filmic representations of sexuality and desire even in the early 1990s, even though the most famous studies of New Queer Cinema targeted themselves so specifically to that era and its core stable of filmmakers that it's become very common to eulogize queer cinema as something that died by the end or even the middle of the 90s. In various ways that I won't bore you with now, I write deliberately against those tendencies, less to replace earlier models than to expand their reach and involve frequently-disqualified filmmakers into the mix (Cronenberg, Denis, Dash) and also to read the tradition forward into more recent years. Shortbus has been, for these reasons, a gift for me, largely because the movie made it awfully hard to deny the ongoing persistence of a queer cinematic strain in commercial narrative film. And I don't love the movie. The film comes down inexplicably hard on the S/M-loving loner, it gets more visually and erotically bashful as it continues, and the biases are strongly masculine, despite the complementary problem of the gigantically over-invested scene of Sofia's first orgasm (rendered in facial close-up??), which just isn't adequate to all the personal and political issues that John Cameron Mitchell's screenplay and filmmaking have taken upon themselves, with admirable ambition. I know: nag, nag, nag. But the ambitions are admirable, the film is bright and funny, it offers not just a good time but a whole spectrum of good times, it's cheeky and unabashedly aphrodisiac, and it gave me my first chance while working on this book to experience a new, broadly agreed-upon milestone of queer cinema with a first-run audience. Very scholastically enabling, but a delicious night out in and of itself. Pretty hot, too. Don't you think?

Nov 2, Swift Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
My first public introducing and moderating gig at Northwestern was for Jules Rosskam's documentary transparent, a truly eye-opening film in which 19 different transmen of different generations from all around the United States recount their memories of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood from a time before they transitioned to male bodies, in part or in full, and to complete, day-to-day identifications as men. I have rarely seen a documentary that encompasses so many privileged interview subjects and nonetheless sits so comfortably with the variety of viewpoints those subjects express. And what a variety: men for whom pregnancy marked their first-ever pleasures in relation to their female bodies (in some cases prompting wholly unexpected ambivalence about their looming transitions), men for whom pregnancy embodied the bitter depth of their bodies' refusal to endorse their profound senses of their selves, men who have maintained close ties or strained ties or no ties with their children, through their own volition or the choices of others. Already it's remarkable to see a trans-centered documentary that maintains such empathetic emphasis on narrating faces, rather than taking the usual bait of scrutinzing the bodies. I both learned and felt a lot while watching this rigorous piece of work, and Jules was an invigorating speaker and conversation partner during the public event the next day. I expect the film will be new to most or all of you. If you're intrigued, and you study or teach at a university with some money to spend, encourage them to order a copy.

Nov 14, Landmark Century Centre Cinemas, Chicago, IL
I still don't know how James Longley pulled off Iraq in Fragments, his deep self-immersion in a country that is awfully hard for anyone to inhabit these days, much less a white Westerner with a huge camera, living outside any kind of mass-media or institutional insulation. This, of course, is exactly what allows the movie to be so revelatory and special, even if you don't realize that Longley was his own director, cinematographer, editor, composer, and sound recordist. The film isn't perfect, and a little fragmentation can sometimes go a long way, but it outpaced almost any other film this decade at exposing me to images I badly needed to see, and helping me understand a country I badly needed to understand. I still don't grasp why theater exhibitors or studio distributors or major TV networks can't be persuaded to take a very occasional siesta from the usual fare and show us material like this, as obvious, I would even say emergency need arises. There's no question a lot of people would have watched. Not as many as watch American Idol, but surely more than could keep up with a one-week run in theaters, given the film's profound life-or-death relevance to our lives. I've probably recommended this movie to more people, and to a broader range of people, than is true of any other single title in the last ten years, give or take Morvern Callar. If you haven't checked it out, hop to.

Nov 24, The Music Box, Chicago, IL
Okay. Here is how it went down. Derek is one of those Julie Andrews people. You know what I mean, and I could give you some backstory there, but just go with it. As a devoted New Yorker trying to work out his relationship to Chicago, he had pinned a lot of hope on the post-Thanksgiving, dress-up, sing-along showing of Mary Poppins at the Music Box, a theater with such a charming, old-fashioned aesthetic, an organist still often plays on weekend evenings, before the show. This kind of thing would have been a bonanza in gay New York, and even though I'm not really a costume-party guy, I know when the duty of couplehood calls. Four of our new closest friends in Chicago, who happen to be tenured co-workers of mine, two of them my department chairs, also decide to come as a gesture of camaraderie, though we doubt they'll be in costume. Which is fine. Derek's a chimney sweep. Wire brush, smudges on his cheeks, the whole bit, and he's been tap-dancing his whole life, so this is pretty A+ work. I'm Michael Banks: hair parted to the side, loafers with socks pulled up, sweater vest and tie, a blue blazer over blue shorts. The first sign of trouble is that we can't get a cab, even though many, many of them pass us. But this is a Code Yellow concern. When a taxi does finally accept us as a fare, we barrel straight into Code Red: the main theater, with 750 seats, is a hair's breadth away from selling out, yet despite every single ad for this event, there are exactly two other people in costume. They are two sisters, one about 5 or 6, the other about 3, and their "costumes" are simple white pinafores. They are with their parents; in fact, almost everyone in the place is a child, or a smug-looking parent of a child. Meanwhile, I would like to remind you that Derek and I have a date with my bosses. An emcee arrives on stage for the QUOTE-UNQUOTE Costume Contest. Derek and I attempt to sink into our seats, but my extremely amused colleagues are really into the finger-pointing thing, and then a real, actual spotlight is on us. We are trotted onto the stage. Derek, a dead-ringer for Burt in every other way, has murder in his eyes. It is the only thing standing between himself and bottomless depression. We win the Costume Contest, but the thought-bubble above his head still says, "I hate Chicago." Derek's prize is a CD of 1930s big-band tunes (??). I get a T-shirt. My bosses are guffawing. But what is this louder disturbance from the audience? It is this: a man running up the aisle, hallooing, with a girl in his arms who cannot possibly be more than a year old. This man grabs the mic from the red-nosed emcee, stands in front of us, and tells the audience that his little darling was previously in a costume, but that he had to take it off after she wet herself. This man would like one of our prizes. A small kerfuffle about "rules" emerges in which we play no role whatsoever, except that we are still standing in a spotlight on a stage in front of 750 people, the nearest of whom is a wet one-year-old girl in white-cotton skivvies. The print of Mary Poppins, one of the best movies ever made in Hollywood, has apparently at some point been dragged through a barrel of jacks, nails, and cactus needles. You don't know what a near-death experience is, really, until you've had one.

Nov 26, The Music Box, Chicago, IL
Amazingly enough, despite barely surviving my own version of Vicars and Tarts, I attend the Music Box twice on the following two days, once for dress-up, sing-along The Sound of Music (eight people in costume, none of them me or Derek). The day following that, while Derek stays at home keening, and looming a tapestry of the Empire State, I bus down for a restored print of Sanshô the Bailiff. My boss in college, even though our work had nothing to do with movies (I was, if you must know, a cleaner of dormitory bathrooms), loved to talk with me about favorite films, and his very favorite was Sanshô the Bailiff. It was one of those things where he'd ask me all the time if I'd seen it yet. I was secretly hoping to come across it in a theatrical context some day, and here it was. Beyond recuperating my relationship to the Music Box, it vaulted into the topmost tiers of the best movies I'd ever seen. You can read me rhapsodizing about it here, but after a few warm-to-lukewarm encounters with Kurosawa, I finally understood there was more waiting for me in the sprawling canons of Japanese filmdom than Shohei Imamura and Woman in the Dunes. I'm still not 10% as diligent as I should be in getting to know more of it, but Sanshô is completely unmissable. I just gaped through the whole movie. It had been a while, maybe since Andrei Rublev, that I'd gaped like that, so ceaselessly, in a cinema.

Nov 27, CinéArts 18, Evanston, IL
The two films I eventually gave "A"s in 2006 were very late discoveries. On top of the impatience that gnawed at me up till then, I was a little worried about how few of my other favorites were feeling-heavy affairs. There's lots and lots and lots to say about The Departed and Half Nelson and Clean and Inside Man and Drawing Restraint 9, but I was still waiting for some movie to go emotionally for broke. I didn't think that movie would be The Fountain, and after finding the formal ostentation of Requiem for a Dream so aggravating and impersonal, I was all the more pleased to see what a passion-piece this was. Not just for Aronofsky, but through his images, and through Hugh Jackman's performance, and through the production design and the ingenious visual effects, and most of all through Clint Mansell's plangent, jagged-edged, and soaring score, it became a passion-piece for me. I walked out of the theater sorting through my next week's schedule, figuring out when I could see it again.

Nov 30, Block Cinema, Evanston, IL
My love of The Fountain probably raises some eyebrows over my absolute contempt for Apocalypto, since let's be honest, The Fountain isn't going to win any prizes from the Imaginary League of Nuanced Representations of Central America, either. BUT, The Fountain admits that it's telling a stylized fantasy story, rather than asking for points for historical accuracy while also trawling for as much race-inflected bloodthirst as it can marshal. And Darren Aronofsky seems not to go to bed inquiring of himself, "Are there any more ways to subject the human body to the kinds of things that normally happen to food, across the whole range of kitchen appliances?" I despised Apocalypto, and I couldn't quite gauge the tone of the college students at my sold-out advance screening. At moments they were unquestionably laughing at the movie; at others, they seemed invigorated, like the extras in Gladiator. At the very least, even at their most rabble-roused, they didn't prepare me to get a Rotten Tomatoes comment within 24 hours that began, "Are you a Jew?" Easily the creepiest moment of my film-reviewing "career."

Dec 4, Lake Street Screening Room and AMC Pipers Alley 4, Chicago, IL
A brief, shining moment: I finally get invited to a critics' screening in Chicago, for Notes on a Scandal. I am alone in the room, which has about ten seats, though they are the most comfortable seats I've ever sat in, at least in a cinema. Anyway, here is my playbook for how to make sure you're never invited back for another critics' screening: when the marketing exec from the studio follows up with an e-mail, you write two extremely long paragraphs about the movie having good stuff in it but finally being too confused, and more than a little reactionary in its gender politics. And then, never post an actual review on your website. Nick 1, Professionalism 0. In between seeing Notes and coming home to hobble my own credibility, I stop over in the tucked-away, perpetually down-on-its-heels, but perversely charming AMC Pipers Alley, where it's always freezing, except when it's boiling. And you can usually hear the other movies through the walls, though the Dixie Chicks sure put paid to that particular problem, belting and strumming their hearts out through Shut Up & Sing. Invigorating, at the halfway point of Bush's second term, to see such a balls-out portrait of dissidence, resilience, and ownership of one's own words and sentiments. The Dixie Chicks survived and came out the other side, and eventually, so did we all.

Dec 28, Ritz East, Philadelphia, PA
MLA was back in Philadelphia, just like in 2004. I only wrote about House of Flying Daggers when I recapped that year, but among other films I caught during that conference was the interesting but off-putting auteurist stumble The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I was not profoundly eager for, except I was curious to see what Cate Blanchett would do with her role. Fast-forward two years, and I'm back in the exact same theater, at the same time of day, with the same small crowd of solos and occasional couples, watching Cate leaning a bit too hard on mannerism, just as she did in Life Aquatic, and this time as a survival tactic through an even bigger auteurist stumble, Steven Soderbergh's The Good German. I forget The Good German all the time (don't you?), but what I loved was the sister seated a few rows ahead of me, who turned around during the end credits and asked rather loudly, "Did you like that, at all?" I said, "No." She said, "Don't you usually like World War II movies?" And I said, "No, but I usually like Cate Blanchett movies, and Steven Soderbergh movies." And then, from behind both of us, one half of a duo of teenagers said, "We usually like Tobey Maguire movies, and we hated it." A middle-aged woman, off to my right: "I thought it was going to be a good mystery, but it wasn't really that, either." We all turned our heads to the only other person still seated in the theater. "I came for Clooney," he said. "Did you like it?" "I hated it." So, way to go, Good German: you drew us all to the cinema for totally different reasons, and you managed to dissatisfy all of us, profoundly. But there was something completely wonderful about the impromptu referendum by which we established this fact. I have never again experienced anything like it, though I often, often wish to.

Key VHS/DVD Encounters from 2006 (Chronological):
Kings and Queen, I'll Cry Tomorrow, L'Âge d'or, Butterflies on the Scaffold, The Love Parade, Some Came Running, Ninotchka, Random Harvest, Un Chant d'amour, O Fantasma, Walk on the Wild Side, All I Desire, Dodsworth, Stella Dallas, Southern Comfort, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (review)



Blogger Colin Low said...

What a scream, those Mary Poppins and Good German experiences, though commiserations with you on the first! (Even though I still don't get the appeal of Mary Poppins; I loved the modernity of Andrews' performance and the sprightliness of the music and choreography, but these seem to come at the expense of every other character starching the film stiff.) A distant third in hilarity, which is still laugh-out-loud funny: Paul Giambatti, that sly white winedog.

And yay, because I loved your writing on the desiring-image and Velvet Goldmine and Shortbus, and still eagerly await the chapters on (as you flagged in the intro) Cronenberg and Lynch and all the others. Though I admit that I still can't really tell when a movie with GLBT content excludes itself from your rubric of queer cinema.

P.S. That Shortbus image: just saucy. Really, Dr Davis.

12:48 AM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Tim said...

A great moment of how much it matters to us when other people share our pleasures and frames of reference, either or especially when you're not expecting them to.

One of the noblest sentiments you've put out so far in this series, and all the more meaningful since you now make the second person I know besides me to actually respect Wolf Creek.

Other things: right behind you on Melquiades Estrada and Crank, we must agree to disagree on Block Party (I found Gondry's kid-gloves treatment of the politics involved extremely frustrating), and I find it amusing that even before we had ever heard of each other, we still managed to see the same films at the festival, just not at the same time.

Thank you also of reminding me of the Good Aul' Days when the Century 12 and CineArts 6 were great theaters, before Cinemark mucked it all up. Man, I don't miss living in Evanston.

I'm just sad that Lubezki has personally assassinated the entire families of so many Oscar voters.

Even that doesn't explain losing for Children of Men.

9:38 AM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

I dunno, Tim, even Children of Men struggled for placement at the Oscars. Lubezki just seems to love doing his thing for movies that Academy voters aren't inclined to catching a glimpse of.

And I agree with you on Nick's quote. Loved it.

9:59 AM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger JKlorfein said...

This entry was a lot of fun, since parallel worlds are emerging. Especially since I was at two of these screenings - where maybe I wasn't showing the best theatre etiquette.

I came into Syndromes and A Century, fifteen minutes late, after missing a train from the station where I was working on a student film set. I was a 2nd AD, and the dead poodle in the film just didn't look dead enough. I could feel major glares when I walked into the cinema, but it was great.

I seem to remember a similar reaction from the crowd at "Apocalypto". Or maybe I don't remember - some friends and I had an "Apocalypto" pre-game at Taco Bell beforehand. I do know that I was howling during the water birth.

Superglad "Crank" was your intro to the Century.

4:22 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...

I totally remember your coming back to the hotel after you saw The Good German. Heh.

7:04 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Colin: Broadly speaking, to me a queer film is one that uses form and style to challenge (inevitably hetero) structures of narrative, genre, and/or montage, and which doesn't just address concerns of sexuality within the story and cast but actually lashes some idiosyncratic or dissident form of desire operating in the narrative to the structural eccentricities of the film, so that it embodies a break from normativity rather than just posing one at the more superficial level of content. In the films I examine, like Haynes's and Cronenberg's and Denis's and Dash's and (less centrally) Lynch's, it would be hard to parse a line between the unusual textures and formal developments of the film and the unusual traits of the desires enacted or suggested in those films. Does that help? (By contrast, a film like Brokeback doesn't actually force us to watch or read the movie in any unusual way, despite its being a landmark of "gay" representation within a very popular, traditional narrative form. In terms of your earlier question about Cabaret, which is a more unusual "musical" than Brokeback is a drama (at least in terms of form), I don't see the film stitching its rapid-cutting experiments in montage to its investigations of desire in as deep a way as a "queer" film would for me, though the case is certainly arguable.

And, to swipe a line from Huckabees, is it a crime, is it a crime to look at Shortbus? One wouldn't want to repeat the film's own trend of being incongruously bashful about what the movie is, what its quintessential images are like, and what it's about.

@Tim, who I understand is no Shortbus fan: Glad to know we're mates in the Wolf Creek camp, and I'll be interested to talk Syndromes with you once I check back in with it, which I've wanted to for a long while. Would also love to hear more of your argument against DCBP.

@Jason, you rowdy disruptor: I have no memory of any interloper crashing the Apichatpong party so many minutes in, so you're safe with me. Also, "howling" is the only possible response to the birth scene, if you ask me.

@Dr. S: Yes, you would have caught the full force of my dyspepsia about that film! As for the other part: thanks, Sis! But let's keep it on the movies. This feature's all about sharing, but I don't necessarily want to lift every veil from my life! ;)

7:50 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Bill C said...

Just when I thought you couldn't top the GLADIATOR and Valentine's Day anecdotes, this MARY POPPINS memory. I hope one day you're a talk-show staple.

Also, the Scorsesiac in me must point out that "Gimme Shelter" opens THE DEPARTED, not "Sympathy for the Devil."

9:38 PM, December 07, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Wow, your explanation helps plenty. Thanks for taking the time to write in such detail! I don't even see how this is "broadly speaking", unless by specifics you mean tethering your arguments to Deleuze's theories of cinema.

And I presume it's just as rhetorical for me to say that, no, it's not a crime to look at Shortbus, as it was for you to pose the question. ;) I share many of your sentiments about that film, although ironically I'm still praying for an L.A.-based remake where top-tier stars play the non-naked cast members (Justin Bond, Severin, the ex-mayor) while lesser-knowns have to bare it all in the lead roles; I'd guess that the more fawning Shortbus acolytes might sing a different tune to that xD

(Oh, and thanks for clarifying your position on Cabaret, since I've only had your 'A' grade to go on, when despite its status as a gay classic I find the film very reactionary in its portrayal of nonhetero desire.)

12:46 PM, December 08, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...


2:08 PM, December 08, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Bill: If you want to find me a talk show, I will absolutely be on it. And thanks for catching my slip. I've seen the movie enough times now, with no first-reel hiccups to blame, that I really oughta know.

@Colin: As ever, you are very kind and encouraging with your interest in my book project. I'm inclined to agree with you about Cabaret's sexual politics, but it's so bracing as a musical and a stylistic feat that I mind less than I probably should. Plus, I can't tell how much of the problem is the movie and how much is Michael York, who's such a stale bowl of milk, in everything.

11:42 PM, December 08, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

Your most hilarious piece to date, yet for all the gold here (let me join the chorus guffawing over your "Mary Poppins" story -- I'd say you are no longer in debt to Derek for Valentines Day 2002 after that), it's this aside that had me laughing longest:

...while Helen Mirren answered the phone yet again and said, "MISter Blair!"

As much as I still love your writing when we disagree, it's when we are united against the majority on titles like "The Queen" that I love it most.

And the unity continues through to "Wolf Creek" -- I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that I'm not crazy for loving the film as I do. Some of my readers freaked last year, when I put it in my horror-cinema Top 10. They've got a nasty surprise waiting when my end-of-decade list drops, I'll say that much.

4:48 AM, December 09, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

psssst to Guy: It's on my best-of-decade list, too. And our moments of consensus are as gratifying to me as they are to you. The Queen is a funny case. There are people who love it and people who just can't see what it's doing off a television, and in my experience, there is just no persuading either party across this gulf. I say this, of course, as one of the intractables.

9:49 PM, December 09, 2009  
Blogger Mike Phillips said...

You are undoubtedly the biggest movie geek I have ever met; I say that with all the adoration in my heart. 2006 was a banner year for me, mostly because you moved to Chicago.

(No, I'm not crying... there's something in my eye...)

4:31 AM, December 10, 2009  
Blogger Glenn said...

Wow. Thorough!

I must say, I loathed Syndromes and a i have no idea what that title means. I fell asleep multiple times for brief seconds at a time. I got so bloody angry at that movie for seemingly not doing anything of any interest.

But I know others love it, so... ya know.

Those Good German and Mary Poppins stories were hilarious! Thank you!

6:08 AM, December 10, 2009  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

As one of the extreme intractables, I would have been bored witless by The Queen on a television set too.

8:42 AM, December 11, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home