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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Destination "Paradise": Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" Trilogy

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, a film series featured at the Walker this week, takes loosely related characters, all women on a kind of “vacation,” and wonders about the paradox of escape. What will strike viewers first is Seidl’s upfront presentation of bodies that we’re not accustomed to seeing on screen. In the social and spiritual critique the filmmaker stirs into the film there’s the problem of the body, with all of its insatiable urges that weigh people down and determine vectors of action — or docility and inaction. Is pleasure so rampant in a permissive and secular society? Escape – through the film’s three chapters of “Love,” “Faith,” and “Hope” – is tied to an evasion from the tyrannical confines of the body, itself the victim of the socially determined shackles of defined “beauty.” There’s a weird brand of contemporary gnosticism – if it can be technically called “gnosticism” – where the dual worlds of flesh and spirit, with the material world being shunned for more transcendental matters, have shifted to this other Platonic cove of Ideal Forms undulating in the infoculture of Reality TV and sizzling, rampant advertising, the bodies preternaturally airbrushed and reglossed. Contrary to that “gnosticism,” it’s full flesh and unabashed “materialism,” but it’s of a hyperreal quality, and ultimately it’s an intimation of a faraway paradise. These bodies might as well be Other, or the transcendent world of “spirit.” The material world, meanwhile, stares transfixed, perhaps blinded in emulation or a conscientiousness haunting the staring onlookers.

Paradise is thenthe corpulent cousin to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which also channels the hyperreal quality of an oversexed world, morality taking the bus home before the nihilism of pleasure is fulfilled in a group of white, beautiful and privileged characters triumphantly killing darker-skinned (and thicker) ones, whose culture the “spring breakers” have collectively appropriated — not as something to be retained indefinitely, but to remembered as another fond memory, cherished long after college course work is completed and a nice bourgeois existence established.

But Spring Breakers is shot from the perspective of glorified beauty and celebrity, of Vanessa Hudgeons and Selena Gomez, whereas Paradise has three related Austrian women, pale and bloated to varying degrees as opposed to tanned and toned, interacting with environments as the camera statically looks on from a distance (this isn’t to reflect a preference for Paradise over Spring Breakers, as the latter, like Michael Bay’s recent Pain and Gain — yes, I’m citing Bay in a column featuring Ulrich Seidl and Harmony Korine — works on the audience’s unbridgeable disparity from the shining spoils of celebrity). The stillness of the camera, in all three chapters, gradually becomes more unsettled as temptation and carnal hunger salivates and is uniformly disappointed for these women.'

Friday, April 12, 2013

Derek Cianfrance's Dark Side of the "Pines"

The Place Beyond the Pines is Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious and often beautiful if over-flowing follow-up to his 2010 drama Blue Valentine, and like that film it revels in the pale and disappointed reflections when the bright hopefulness of youth is cast on the present darkness. For Cianfrance, aspirations and romanticism are dulled and surrender to the day-to-day pressures and wear-and-tear of real life. Blue Valentine was the dark side of the hopeless romance emulated in films like Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, showing what happens to a pair of lovers (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) who realize they’ve hit the end, their doom predestined from the start. The Place Beyond the Pines is Cianfrance taking on the theme of fathers and sons, structured as a trilogy of short stories of linked characters in a stew that boils over 15 years in Schenectady, New York. But an interesting taste of allusion in these two films bridges gritty drama to fantasy, a small locale to the cosmos. Blue Valentine, with its sci-fi romantic getaway hotels and “robot vaginas,” along with its future premonitions and discontinuities of communication, felt oddly back-lit by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as even empathetic exchanges between lovers was no more fruitful than the frustrated enmity between human astronaut and the HAL computer. Pines similarly led my memory down the same terrain, feeling guided by another father and son trilogy, Star Wars.  Connecting modern drama to sci-fi spectacle and escapist fantasy, I wonder if Cianfrance is constructing a tragic thesis about this specific generation, raised on sci-fi and Hollywood escapism (the same transition of ’70s Hollywood to the ’80s that was the focus of Argo), in danger of choking on the debt incurred by its unimpeded idealism. Yet this generation’s destiny is still tied to the previous generation’s madness.

I guess there’s the more immediate question as to whether The Place Beyond the Pines is even a success, and at this point, seeing the film once a couple of days ago, I’m not certain if it’s a good film, an ear-worm picture that will grow on viewers over time, or a heavy-handed follow-up failure by a marvelous filmmaker who will need to finesse his craft. Many have argued of its merits as a rare epic of dozens of characters playing big roles, using broad gestures for its themes (not unlike the opera of another familial trilogy, The Godfather, which is really the type of filmmaking to which Cianfrance aspires; Pines also very much reminded me of Coppola’s late family opera, Tetro). Watching these gestures and motifs, I thought some obliqueness might benefit Cianfrance who, with his big structural layout of mirroring personalities and stunning tracking shots following each of them, including a bravura opener that stalks motorcycle boy Ryan Gosling from his trailer through a carnival and to a stunt-bike performance with two other bikers in an enclosed ball, seems bent on making a classic, almost literary, drama. His intimacy that was so precious with the two leads from Blue Valentine now wants to blow down a brick wall and pound emotions and characters into your memory cells, while at the same time the spectacle, though showy at times, is still a whisper.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

“I love you, Roger Ebert.”

That’s all I could write in the seconds immediately following a tweet announcing his death posted by the Chicago Sun Times, where Ebert had served as chief film critic for 46 years.  As much as any film-maker, Ebert the viewer, critic, and writer was the face of movie adoration throughout my entire life, accompanied for a good chunk of that time by his At the Movies co-host, Gene Siskel, who passed away from a brain tumor in 1999. Beside the sacrament expressed through watching the films, Ebert was the sagacious interpreter, a kind of theologian to whom I looked for direction, suggestions, arguments for or against something, and, especially towards the end of his life, wisdom.  That’s Ebert’s legacy, beyond being a great critic and writer. He was also one of the great illuminating humanists of my life.

It’s not to say that I agreed with him all the time, or even slightly modeled myself as a writer and critic on him. He’ll permanently have my envy as a writer, and even if he’s utterly wrong about a film (some examples: Heaven’s Gate, Brazil, Blue Velvet, Full Metal Jacket, The Master), he assumes his position with such authority, wit, and clarity that I wished I agreed with him. It’s easy to launch into tirades of hate against the critics with whom one disagrees – look at the comments section of most Internet reviews – but with Ebert, as with the best critics (such as departed icons Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, or the wonderfully up-and-running brilliance of Glenn Kenny of MSN and, I bow in reverential disagreement.

But more than those revered colleagues, Ebert’s legacy is tied to his familiarity, which reached beyond cinephiles to the casual filmgoer. He’s family, Uncle Roger, whose writings are as declarative as they are empathetic, as if he were listening to you at the same time he was speaking.  If he was pedantic, he was the most pragmatic of pedants.  Maybe syndicated television and the thumbs up/thumbs down gimmick gave him the edge to become our collectively familiar chief critic, as he found an easy entrance into the living room. It’s lovely listening to him talk about a film, and then combating with Siskel (check out the two quickly collide on Crash) – but just as invigorating to hear them in uniform jubilation (maybe GoodFellas being the best example). But there’s a reason why he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, and Ebert’s gifts as a writer are what drew me to him and made him, as I acknowledged above, so loved.  In my lifetime, as I became increasingly familiar with his written collections, he evolved from the verbose fleshy uncle to the eloquent voice of reason and basic human empathy: the wise uncle, or, for all of us who write about films with obsessiveness, a patriarch, a father.

Read the full column at L'ETOILE MAGAZINE

Monday, April 1, 2013

UHF: Life as a Mop, Through a Lens

Welcome. It's the Niles Files third April Fool's blog. Hi! Again, hi! If you're really bored and life is still pointless, like it was last year, check out last year's entry on Young Einstein, or the selection from the year before that, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Have a good day! Wheeeee!

“Inner life manifests itself in various elements and conglomerations of external life,” writes Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler, “especially in those almost imperceptible surface data which form an essential part of screen treatment. In recording the visible world – whether current reality or an imaginary universe – films therefore provide clues to hidden mental processes.”

I don’t know what the fuck that’s all about. I suppose it has something to do with Kracauer surveying German cinema through Expressionism and the Weimar Republic and tying it to how all that morbid stuff anticipated things in the German unconscious that blossomed into National Socialism or something, but I don’t fucking know. I haven’t read the book. I bought a used copy on Amazon a while back and it’s just *there*, collecting dust. Sometimes when I’m drunk  I’ll pick it up and skim it looking for my name. But the passage sounds like it could probably pertain to the focus of this week’s discussion, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Jay Levey’s motion picture masterpiece from 1989, UHF, a comedy all about the inner life of a single man made manifest in his fortuitous occupation as programmer for a neglected UHF television station out of Tulsa. The imagination of George Newman (played by co-writer Yankovic, who also wrote much of the film’s music) is at last able to leap from its boundless interiorization, where it had disrupted the workings of his day-to-day life, spoiling a string of day jobs and injuring a romantic relationship with a patient girlfriend, Terri (Victoria Jackson).  But by bridging the inner workings of his mind to the screen, and so to the community (and with the aid of another dreamer, the innocent, Parsifal-life janitor Stanley Spudowski, played by Michael Richards), George Newman at last achieves fulfilling individuation. Instead of being crushed by his dreams, like the boulder that squishes the dreaming George into burger meat during the picture’s Raiders of the Lost Ark-inspired prologue, with U62 everybody has bought a share of stock into George’s mind, the communicative, fully fermented body of proliferation and imagination, and the worlds of screen iconography and reality have achieved harmony.  The representative “New Man,” George is no longer the onanistic, isolated dreamer, and Terri will now be a fixture in “all” of George’s dreams, as he tells her in the film’s Gone With the Wind finale.

But Yankovic’s intimate, psychological journey of this “New Man” existing through an increasingly videoscopic age of ubiquitous camera eyes and image reception is onto the irony of how the audience is also “watching” a “film,” a story that bears its own lofty quotation “marks,” UHF (or “UHF”), and indeed we are provoked into wondering how we interpret its signs, taking its resonances of technologically constructed fantasy and ethereal imagination out of the theater with us as we exit and plan to make our own twinkie wiener sammiches. UHF’s prologue is filled with such signs warning of a wrong direction, beginning with the alleged (though still earnestly deliberate) flub of a mercenary having his left arm whipped off by the silent, Indiana Jones-styled Newman, when a close-up of the arm on the ground shows us what is clearly the right arm, pistol in hand.  From there we see the “Sacred Hovitas symbol,” sticking its tongue out at us and “certain death for anyone who enters” the dark cave, where the prize for image creation and manufacturing waits within the deep bowels: the Oscar, coveted by George Newman as it was coveted by Al Yankovic (and who was glaringly overlooked, so predictably, by the Academy in favor of inferior films like Driving Miss Daisy and Born on the Fourth of July).  George’s guide turns back in alarm, but outside he’s killed by a train that’s found it’s way through the Amazon rainforest.  The guide heeds the warnings, but this is the terrain of George’s head. He’s no safer in the pit of the temple than he is outside. Indeed, UHF anticipates Inception by decades.