what i watched

Film Fatales #118: Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999). My third Claire Denis film, after 35 Shots of Rum and White Material, and the third I've found quite impressive. Once again, she isn't worried about clarifying events. It's a character study, where the heat of Djibouti is a character of its own. It's said she drew on Melville's Billy Budd, and I can see that ... if nothing else, it's clear which character in Beau Travail is the Billy Budd stand-in. I was reminded a bit of Full Metal Jacket, in the way the men in the French Foreign Legion do mind-numbing physical tasks to prepare them for a war. One difference between the two films (besides the part where Beau Travail is far superior) is that Denis never takes us to the actual war, the way Kubrick does in the second half of his film. The absence of any actual fighting makes the endless preparations of the Legionnaires almost abstract. Because Denis doesn't force a narrative down our throats, the eventual fate of the main characters seems a bit abrupt. But overall, the film carries a power that belies the seemingly calm surface. The buried homoerotic subtext in itself is overwhelming at times. #115 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #93 on the recently released TSPDT poll of its users.

Geezer Cinema: Awake (Mark Raso, 2021). Never call a movie "Awake" unless you are sure you will give audiences plenty to keep them from getting sleepy. Awake has an intriguing, if silly, premise: everyone on Earth is unable to fall asleep (I've already forgotten the "explanation" for this), except for a couple of people, one of which is a young girl played by Ariana Greenblatt, who was young Gamora in Avengers: Infinity War. This is not a big-name cast. Gina Rodriguez stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh is only in a couple of scenes and she is mostly wasted, and there are a handful of "that guys" like Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, and Shamier Anderson. Oh, and Frances Fisher, whose part is barely larger than Leigh's. It's not much of a movie. In fairness, I didn't fall asleep while watching it. But then, I had some caffeine before it started.

[Letterboxd lists for Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema]

what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.


sátántangó (béla tarr, 1994)

Definitely a case of Eat Your Vegetables. I never found myself involved in Sátántangó ... OK, I laughed a couple of times, which I suppose is something, although two laughs in 7 hours and 19 minutes doesn't qualify as a laff riot. Yes, I know Sátántangó isn't meant to be a laff riot. I'm just looking for something to say about a movie I'd heard so much about, that I finally got around to watching, and as I expected, it's in the Terrence Malick Genre of Movies That Accomplish What the Film Makers Set Out to Do but That Aren't Meant for Me. (Factoid I didn't know: Malick is 12 years old than Béla Tarr.)

Seriously, this movie was never meant for me, and I can't dismiss it just because I didn't like it. So if you think you'd like to see a 439-minute example of Slow cinema, or if like me you are a wannabe completist who absolutely needs to see the 109th-best movie of all time according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They website, then by all means, go for it. Here's a tentative place to start, a Letterboxd list I just created filled with Slow cinema movies:

Slow cinema

Or, if you want to start with Slow movies I loved, check out L'Avventura or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (some would argue these two movies are not Slow cinema), or Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (which most definitely is Slow cinema).

There was one segment in Sátántangó that I found objectionable far beyond the "Tarr is accomplishing what he set out to do" angle. I knew from reading about the film that there would be a scene where a girl tortures and kills a cat. I wasn't prepared for the actuality, though. As I wrote on Facebook, "The cat scenes were far worse than I expected after reading about them and also reading an interview with Tarr. What a bunch of shit ... oh, we didn't hurt the cat, we had a vet there, blah blah blah. When she put the cat in a mesh net, the cat didn't look like it wanted to be a movie star as it struggled to escape. When she forced the cat's face into the milk, the cat wasn't having any fun. But it's all OK, because it's Art."

In honor of Phil Dellio, I have to post this highlight from the film, since he has used it many times as a way to convince me ... well, not sure what, but it worked, I did finally watch the movie.


film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.


spring, summer, fall, winter ... and spring (ki-duk kim, 2003)

I'm not a Buddhist, but I think I'm safe in saying this is a Buddhist film. There are few characters, but a couple of the main ones are monks or monks in training. But it's not the narrative that is Buddhist, as much as it is the setting, the pace, the spiritual nature of the film. Most of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring takes place in a monastery that sits in the middle of a lake. It is never explained how the floating monastery got there, or even how it floats. On the other side of the lake are large doors through which the camera, and at times the characters, move. But the doors don't serve a concrete purpose ... anyone could just walk around them. In a similar fashion, while the monastery only has one room, there is a door that people go through, even though they, too, could walk around them. There is something respectful about how these doors are treated. It is also part of the overall reality of the movie ... nothing is "real" at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy. It's just a visualization of the spiritual. #938 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#173 on the 21st-century list).

At the beginning, we meet a monk and his young apprentice. With the passage of each season into another, time moves forward and the apprentice ages, from teenager to adult to middle age. Finally, he takes on his own apprentice. Kim manages to create a calm film, thanks to the pacing, the beauty of the imagery, and the musical score. It's not that "nothing happens", or even that only "nice" things happen. A broad spectrum of human behavior is seen in the film. The calmness comes from the acceptance that everything is one. Or not ... like I say, I'm not a Buddhist.


l'argent (robert bresson, 1983)

There is a famous tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The official name is Sather Tower, but no one calls it that. We call it The Campanile. It is a landmark that helps as a reference point for new students who don't quite know their way around yet. But for most of us, it is known for its carillon, which can be heard over much of Berkeley (we live a mile from campus, and we can hear it just fine).

A pair of falcons live on the tower, and they recently had triplets. A few webcams are set up so people can watch the lives of the young ones. I've taken a peek ... doesn't do much for me ... but my wife has it running constantly on her laptop so she can watch whenever she gets a notion. She loves it, and tells me tales about what the birds are doing.

Robert Bresson's films, minimalist and contemplative, demand our attention. (My favorite is A Man Escaped.) I often appreciate his movies more than like them, but among other things he is the ultimate "I'll do it my way" film maker, and while I tend to complain about those directors, I always respect them. And with Bresson, I have at times felt more than mere respect. L'Argent is one of those I like.

At first, L'Argent ("Money") seems to be a movie that follows a counterfeit bill through various hands, but eventually, it becomes a story about the people who come into contact with the money. You wouldn't say that "nothing happens" ... in fact, quite a bit happens. But it is presented in a matter-of-fact manner. Check out this clip, properly named "Car Chase":

A bank is being robbed. We see the getaway driver. We see a man walking down the street reading a newspaper ... he seems important, yet this is his only scene and he's largely irrelevant. We see cops with guns, we see the robber with a hostage. Back to the driver, who hears a shootout that we don't see. Eventually, a cop car pulls up alongside him, and he tries to escape (this begins the "car chase"). Bresson switches between shots of the driver's foot on the gas pedal and views from his rear view mirror. He quickly crashes into another car. It's hard to think of another cinematic car chase with so few fireworks. Something happens, all right, but it's as if Bresson doesn't want to us to see that something.

Bresson is also known for using non-professional actors. He doesn't want "acting" in his movies ... the blankness of the non-actor leaves the audience with nothing except the action (often as simple as a close-up of a face that moves slightly) and the dialogue (which is sparse at times). We don't, we can't be distracted. Action scenes without action, acting scenes without acting. It's easy to understand why my wife, who has no problem looking at a webcam of baby birds, would go stir crazy if she had to watch L'Argent.

Look at this scene, with the perfect YouTube title "Bresson eliminates acting". The driver is in prison. He gets a letter telling him his daughter has died. We see the letter, read by an anonymous mail checker whose face we don't see. In his cell, the letter is read by his cellmates. For a brief moment, we see him with his face buried in his pillow. He raises it for a moment, lowers it again. We never see him reading the letter. Bresson has "eliminated" any possibility of "acting" by shooting and editing it this way.

This is fascinating stuff if you want to delve in. Otherwise, it's not much better than the web cam of the baby birds. #164 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


the passenger (michelangelo antonioni, 1975)

What am I to do with Antonioni? L'Avventura remains one of my very favorite films. I liked the rest of the "trilogy" (La Notte and L'Eclisse) without loving them. Same for Blow-Up. Thought Red Desert was a drop-off from the trilogy, and found Zabriskie Point pretty awful. I long ago gave up hoping for another L'Avventura ... I just look for something I could at least like.

Well, I don't know if "like" is the word for The Passenger, for it is one of those movies that aren't exactly begging to be liked. Appreciated, yes. Respected, sure. But Antonioni plays with our expectations. He's got Jack Nicholson in the same year Jack won his first Oscar for Cuckoo's Nest, which featured his vibrant energy, and he forces Nicholson into a quieter character with a different kind of antagonism. Appropriately, it should be mentioned ... Nicholson is one of the best things about the movie.

Nicholson plays a journalist, Locke, who exchanges identities with a dead man, Robertson. Almost gets away with it, too. But you can't get much more existential than a man who escapes from his own skin, who doesn't want to be "himself" any more ... and it's significant that the dead man is almost accidental. Locke might not even have known he wanted out of his own life until the opportunity to change presented itself. Unfortunately, it turns out Robertson is a gun-runner, giving Locke more excitement than he was asking for.

Maria Schneider is around as a woman who takes part in Locke/Robertson's adventures. There's something off about her performance, which might be explained by this note from the IMDB: "Maria Schneider was suffering from excruciating back pain during filming, and would often be in a medicated muddle towards the end of the day when her pain medications kicked in. In one scene, Jack Nicholson had to physically prop her up." One sympathizes, but as I say, her performance is missing something.

It is one of the great mysteries of my movie-going life that I am so willing to rave about L'Avventura, with its ironic title, yet am generally resistant to Antonioni's other movies, in which, like with my favorite, "nothing happens". The Passenger fits right in ... there is the barest sketch of a plot, but I doubt The Maestro cared. (And this is when I trot out my oft-told anecdote about a friend who spent time with Antonioni ... my friend said people addressed the great director as "Maestro". Whether this was true, I can verify that my friend had both Antonioni and Monica Vitti in his address book, and this was long before email.)

I don't know why, but at this moment, I'm thinking more kindly of The Passenger than I am for his other non-Adventure movies.

And there's this famous penultimate shot, which is The Passenger in a nutshell: it's one of the most beautiful shots ever, it's hard to figure out how it was done, but while it's happening, a crucial plot point occurs off screen and we never find out what that plot point was. (The image is poor in this YouTube clip, which is sad. The Director of Photography was Luciano Tovoli.)

A sidenote: much of the film takes place in Andalucía, where my wife and I were going to vacation before the Virus changed everyone's plans. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


film fatales #71: 35 shots of rum (claire denis, 2009)

Claire Denis (White Material) co-wrote and directed this film about four people who live in the same apartment building in Paris. I wouldn't say that Denis tells a story ... it's not that nothing happens, it's that she is interested in other things. As I wrote about White Material, "She doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole ... Denis isn't as concerned with 'what happens' in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character ... It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in."

The same could be said for 35 Shots of Rum, which is a bit of an homage to Ozu's Late Spring, in that both concern a father and his young daughter trying to manage their lives together as the woman reaches the age when she could be striking out on her own. Denis takes her time. The relationships of the four people gradually become more clear (besides the father and daughter, there is a middle-aged women who once had an affair with the father and still carries a torch for him, and a young man with an eye on the daughter), but much of the emotional impact advances in subtle ways. They live relatively quiet lives, and what we see is mostly matter of fact. Much of what we learn about the people comes in quiet scenes that are sidelines to what was "really" supposed to happen. In a longish set piece, the four set out together for a concert. They never make it, but they do all end up in a restaurant, where little is said but small glances tell us a lot.

The father and his old flame dance together. The young people talk. Another couple starts to dance. The father switches to dance with his daughter. The young man cuts in. He kisses the daughter ... her reaction is uncertain. The father sees the kiss. He then dances with the restaurant owner as the old flame watches. Finally, they are all on a train back home ... all but the father, who we realize has stayed behind with the owner. None of this is blatant. Denis makes good use of The Commodores' "Nightshift":

The underplaying by the entire cast is perfect for what Denis is doing here. If you think nothing happens in the above scene, then 35 Shots of Rum is probably not for you. If you find the interactions fascinating, though, you will love this movie. #113 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


what i watched

African-American Directors Series: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). I waited too long to watch this movie. It got critical raves, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I'm not a huge Marvel fan, not a huge Spider-Man fan, not a huge fan of animated features that don't come from Miyazaki. Plus, my wife, who is a fan of the Marvel movies, is the one who usually takes me to see them, and this one didn't interest her.

Well, I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element.

I've often wondered if the use of big name stars is a good thing for animation. There are so many great voice actors out there that deserve the work. Nonetheless, there are some excellent voices here, a tribute to the actors and/or the person in charge of casting the film (Mary Hidalgo is her name). Not all of them were megastars ... Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, and Mahershala Ali and his two Oscars have an important role, but they are outliers in cast with folks like Brian Tyree Henry, Kimiko Glenn, and Kathryn Hahn. (Stan Lee even manages to work in his last cameo.) 

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989). Slowly but surely, I am working my way through the films of Jim Jarmusch. One thing I've noticed is how consistent he is ... I've given the same rating to every one I've seen (Down by Law, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). Mystery Train is no different. Jarmusch has a style, one that is recognizable and influential. Jarmusch is not intimidated by a low budget (under $3 million for Mystery Train). He doesn't rush things, and cinematographer Robby Müller, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, ensures that Mystery Train looks wonderful, even when showing us the scuzzier sides of Memphis. There is nothing accidental here.

There are a lot of characters in Mystery Train, and Jarmusch and the actors make those characters memorable. The main narrative is broken into three segments that are marginally connected in terms of plot, but perhaps more connected by theme. Of course, Elvis is the key connector. Two young Japanese tourists come to Memphis to see Graceland. An Italian woman has a vision of The King in her cheap motel room. Joe Strummer's character is nicknamed "Elvis" for his sideburns, if nothing else. And Memphis is a character, as well.

The cast seems like a gimmick, until you realize that Screamin' Jay Hawkins gives arguably the best performance in the film (certainly the most enjoyable), that Joe Strummer makes a fine tortured man dumped by his woman, that many in the cast are connected to others we know (Cinqué Lee is Spike's brother, Nicoletta Braschi is married to Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Down by Law, Elizabeth Bracco is Lorraine's sister) and all are good.


silent light (carlos reygadas, 2007)

Last year, Emre Çağlayan published Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom, which I am guessing grew out of his PhD thesis, Screening Boredom: The History and Aesthetics of Slow Cinema. You can find a list of 258 "Slow Cinema" movies included in the thesis on Letterboxd. I have mentioned on several occasions here that the idea of "slow cinema" seems far out of my area of interest. I have also noted that I often like those movies when I see them. Thus, I have seen 22 of the 258 films on that Letterboxd list, and I liked 18 of them, including 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my 50 Favorite Movies list a few years ago, and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, all of which I loved. It would seem I need to do two things: lighten up on the criticisms of slow cinema, and watch a lot more slow cinema movies.

Well, Silent Light marks the 23rd film from the list that I have seen, and I can safely say that I still only liked 18 of them. Silent Light falls into the category of films where I appreciate when a film seems to have turned out how the filmmaker wanted it to, but where I nonetheless didn't like it. I'm always trying to think of a catchy name for this category ... maybe "Your Mileage May Vary"? Because I don't want to criticize Carlos Reygadas for doing what he wanted to do, and to the extent I know what he wanted, I have no problems, but I'm still unenthusiastic about the result.

Silent Light runs 136 minutes. I paused it twice, ostensibly to pee, but that was just an excuse to break the boredom for a bit. Reygadas uses non-professional actors, and it works well. The movie is also gorgeous to look at. But ... the entire film is not in real time (this isn't High Noon), but individual scenes are played in real time. Working from memory (no, I'm not going to watch it again to see if I'm right), the film opens with a beautiful long take that goes from the stars to a lovely sunrise to a pretty landscape, then goes inside a house where a Mennonite family is saying grace before breakfast. "Saying" is a bit of a misnomer ... everyone seems to be praying silently, and this goes on for a couple of more minutes until the father finally says "Amen". After which, the family eats cereal. In real time.

So ... "Your Mileage May Vary", but I was pretty bored. #50 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century, and #580 on their all-time list.

Here's an interview with Reygadas. He deserves the last word. (There is a Silent Light spoiler, so beware.)