Friday, August 27, 2010

More popular than the Pope, and just a little less so than The Beatles

The Academy just announced that it will give honorary Oscars to Francis Ford Coppola and Jean Luc Godard. That's weird and funny. Either they know something about their health we don't or they couldn't find anyone older/alive who deserved Oscars for great movies and never won.  (Just to be clear, this is the same Academy that didn’t give awards to Kubrick or Hitchcock.) Coppola has three Oscars and Godard would never show up.  Turns out they can't even find him. That’s what you get Academy, for giving Crash, the biggest turd ever, the award.  I’m sorry, but I will never get over the worst movie ever winning an Academy Award.

In Godard’s honor (and because I worship him), on occasion I'm going to post short ruminations on his films until next year’s telecast. Yes, I'm going to keep them very short because when it comes to discussing Godard I can get so super-pedantic and cerebral that I even annoy myself. 
I will call this series “Cher Academy, Va te faire foutre. Jean Luc”. (Dear Academy, go fuck yourself. Jean Luc.)

In the article above, they called him a "sometimes Communist." That's hilarious, but also true in a complex sort of funny way.  And so are most of his films.  The man makes me think and he makes me laugh.  It was sad to see his sense of humor virtually disappear from his films over the past two decades or so.  And judging by his current thoughts on cinema, his morale will not improve.  I think he really thinks cinema is dead.

Cher Academy, Va te faire foutre. Jean Luc: La Chinoise (1967)

Although La Chinoise could be categorized (in the most generic sense of the term) as a political film, the film is really at its core a character study; a brisk social satire on the relationship between a group of young, bourgeois-minded revolutionaries playing terrorists from the comfort a suburban apartment building owned by one of the group's parents. Godard’s brashly colored and boldly patterned revolutionary dig at 60's radical chic isn't exactly subtle with its politics and it’s somewhat difficult to dissect what Godard may be personally endorsing from what he’s condemning in his savage portrayal of the students. Godard would love to be able to wholeheartedly embrace a youth movement that supported real social change, but he’s clearly disenchanted with the all-talk and no-action navel gazing that such activists can engage in. 

Throughout the film, Godard uses this basic narrative framework to explore the relevant ideas of the time. He creates a film that could be seen as a sort of infernal parody of Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1872), in the sense that it creates a certain hermetic environment where the five central characters can ruminate on everything from nihilism, to conservatism, to utopias and utilitarianism, always maintaining that the discussions are only interesting because they reveal something more substantial about the characters, their motivations or the relationships within the group, etc., which continually cross backwards and forwards, traversing the political line and into the personal.

As far as Godard’s political cinema is concerned, La Chinoise is not necessarily his best. It's not nearly as incendiary as Weekend or as successful on its own terms as Tout Va Bien. Even so, he effectively encapsulates what is often wrong with liberal political movements and their ability to harness youthful enthusiasm without knowing how to apply it. He appreciates the young activists of 1967 even as he exposes their flaws. The most pungent critique is saved for the character of Veronique, the one most fervently advocating acts of terrorism. Veronique obviously has no idea how to fill the hole she wishes to create, and right there is Godard's major issue with bourgeois politics: they have no game plan for how to sustain the change they advocate. Thus, they spend more time talking about change than enacting it, and when they do jump into the fray, as Veronique eventually does, they screw it up. Which is fine for them, because they can walk away, return to school for the new semester, completely unaffected. It's easy to have radical ideas when you, yourself, aren't under any real threat. The middle class can speak for the working class without threatening their own bottom line.  This has always been the case and continues to be the case. Do you hear that latte-drinking, arugula-munching limo-riding liberals?

Okay, that didn't turn out as short as I wanted it to be. Apologies. Once I get going, it's hard to stop.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


During my run today I spotted a homeless man under the Sunset Junction bridge on Myra Street. Homeless people usually gather there because there’s a grassy hill where they can hang out and lounge.  It looks pretty comfortable.  From a distance I noticed that he was dressed for winter. He even wore a beanie. It was 90 degrees out there.  As I got closer I saw that he was writing on a notebook with a blue felt tip pen. He was taking it seriously and he didn’t look up at me. His loopy handwriting was steady; his thoughts were flowing with confidence. He knew what he wanted to write. I’ve never seen a homeless person write and I thought about him for the next four miles.

I notice homeless people a lot and I’m often intrigued with them. When I lived in Old San Juan in Puerto Rico there was an alcoholic musician that played Jazz at the main plaza across from the Pueblo supermarket. The first time I saw him he had a boom box and played along with his tenor sax.  I knew enough about Jazz to conclude he was really good. And he wasn’t just playing for charity money. He was really playing for himself and, perhaps, an imaginary Jazz-loving audience.  I wrote my first screenplay around him.  I imagined he was an American Jazz musician whose life went terribly wrong and ended up as a drunk in the Caribbean.  And there was this estranged daughter…and…well…the screenplay ended up in the Drawer.

A few days later my sister and I saw him playing on a different street.  His sax was gone. He played a small, plastic toy flute along with the music from his boom box.  We thought it was comic and tragic.  He had lost his instrument, but somehow he found the way to make music and it was still good!  We wondered where he got the toy flute.  The next time we saw him the boom box was gone.  The last time I saw him I was standing behind him at the checkout at the supermarket.  He was buying a bottle of Vino Perico (the Puerto Rican equivalent of Night Train) with coins. He was not carrying the toy instrument.  I thought about buying him a six-pack of Medalla beer and maybe having a chat with him, but I chickened out.

On my way back he was still there. Still writing.  I slowed down and got closer to him to get a good look at his writing.  He looked up at me. His chubby face was sunburn. He couldn’t be more than 30 years old.  He smiled at me. It wasn’t a crazy smile. It was a happy smile.  I thought maybe he was thankful I noticed him. That he wasn’t invisible to me.

I thought about him during my shower. I felt ashamed. I have a house, a great computer, internet—everything I could possibly need or want—and still I don’t write as often as I should. I waste a lot time being unproductive.  And here was this man who has nothing, sitting on a pissed-on, shitted-on and puked-on sidewalk, writing. 

I wonder if he writes because he needs to or just because he wants to.  I will try to think about him whenever I make up an excuse not to write. I want to talk to him. If I see him again, I will. I want to know what and why he writes. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Films I'm Gonna Rip-Off: The Exterminating Angel

I have a list of movies that I'm planning to rip off or “pay homage to,” as Quentin Tarantino likes to call it. I started with You, the Living; the inspiration for a feature composed of vignettes that take place around Los Angeles.  I’m also writing two screenplays that take place in one location: a big house.  There are quite a few films that meet this criteria, but none as brilliant as Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, and Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.  In addition, Angel’s surreal elements are influencing the narrative of one of my more personal screenplays (see my protagonist's blog). In my eyes, there is no smarter and funnier filmmaker than Buñuel, and I only hope I can execute my stories with a small fraction of his humor and brains.

Angel was a disappointment to Buñuel. After the success of Viridiana, he was given complete artistic freedom but not an adequate budget. In his memoir, My Last Sigh, he complained that "sometimes I regret having shot it in Mexico . I imagined it in Paris or London with European actors and certain luxury in the costumes and props. In Mexico, despite the beauty of the house where it was shot and my effort to select actors who didn't look particularly Mexican, there was a certain tawdriness in many of its aspects. We couldn't get any really fine table napkins, for instance, and the only one I could show on camera was borrowed from the makeup artist." Buñuel was also unhappy with the completed version of Angel because it didn't go as far as he wanted. He felt he censored himself and if he were to remake it he "would leave the people locked up for a month, to the point where they would resort to cannibalism and fighting to the death, in order to show, perhaps, that aggression is innate." It's not a coincidence then, that while watching, I expected the narrative to go there and was surprised that it didn't.

Ten years later Buñuel would get his chance to make a more expensive, polished and sophisticated film in France and with a cast of renowned European actors. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - a study in frustration that slowly assumes cosmic proportions, as an ever-smiling group of society friends tromp from one place to another trying to have dinner - is considered Buñuel's ultimate statement on life's pervasive ironies; he presents a world in which even the simplest acts - fornicating or, supremely, eating - become exercises in futility. Both films share some of the situations and themes, particularly their contempt for the idle bourgeois and their values, unrelenting attack on organized religion and other targets and their unique mix of surrealism and black comedy. Although the fabulous Angel has been eclipsed by Academy Award winner Discreet Charm, Angel is arguably the more impactful film and definitely one of Buñuel's essential masterworks second only to L'Age d'or.

According to Buñuel, Angel is a chronicle of a shipwreck; a freakish dinner party in which a group of high-society friends find themselves unable to leave, trapped in a comic-existential nightmare of paralysis and descent into depravity over the days that follow. Buñuel taunts his characters and the fascinatingly sadistic relationship between creator and creation is evoked explicitly in devilish pieces of dialogue ("This is a bit excessive!") as well as in the twisted pleasure some of the characters derive from their helplessness. "I adore things which go out of the ordinary," a woman says before things really start going very wrong.

Buñuel subverts from within, introducing contradictory images and phrases that open holes in the narrative rather than shattering it outright. The characters deteriorate mentally, physically and socially at an alarming rate. The events, including the psychotic mind tricks, are presented matter-of-factly and no attempt is made to explain why the guests prove incapable of leaving the parlor room. A character dies and is crammed into the same cupboard as the suicidal lovers. Incestuous siblings steal morphine from a terminally ill companion. A woman goes into a trance and begins summoning demons. They urinate in antique urns, they eat the sheep driven into the room by a bear, they crack through a plaster wall and burst a water pipe so they can at long last get something to drink, and in an unforgettable creepy scene, a crawling hand slowly makes its way to the neck of a woman almost out of her mind with hunger. Gradually, their religious beliefs give way to pagan rituals, their elaborate evening clothes become more ragged and dirty, and their snooty self-importance melts away into a savagery they would have previously thought for themselves impossible.

The guests perform meaningless, Sisyphean rituals dictated by their privileged class: the repetitive introductions, the polite acceptance of social invitations, and the perpetuation of self-indulgent dinner parties. However, it is also the passive comfort of their social status that creates their claustrophobic isolation and complacent inertia. Stripped of their pretense, their innate behavior remains fundamentally instinctual, base, and primal. Buñuel's intent is clearly to erode the veneer of civility that keeps the bourgeoisie from imploding and show how the very status, etiquette and ritual upon which their complacent privilege rests isolates them from the remainder of society and reduces them to inertia. But he's also keen to reveal both the bestial instincts that lurk beneath their smug sophistication and their inability to learn from their experiences, as the action closes with the survivors being unable to leave the local cathedral, while a riot erupts outside.

Even after they've managed to lead themselves out of the house, Buñuel imprisons them once again, only this time inside a Catholic church after morning mass, giving them what he feels is the only thing they deserve. If you are new to Buñuel films, this may seen very weird. It is, but that's just the beginning. It's also incredibly entertaining, provocative and funny. Buñuel grinds his ax with the utmost relish and a heavy dose of sarcasm. He pokes fun at the elite with great bravura and wit, ripping them to shreds. It becomes wildly apparent in Angel's first moments that no one and nothing is sacred. Buñuel wages nothing less than dramatic all out war against the pomposity of the ruling class and its dependency on the lower class. He points out a country's fundamental failure to recognize just how much societal order hinges on the work of the proletariat.

The director started with a screenplay, but also improvised as he went along, embellishing the basic situation with stylistic decisions such as the use of repetition, a circular narrative structure and autobiographical details. He photographed the film in a way that keeps our eyes yearning for exposition, causing our glances to dart every which way about the room for any extra clues regarding the mystery. Angel is full of surrealist disjunctions and insouciance; famously, the beginning is repeated exactly, one of a number of repetitions throughout the film, and sheep crowd into a church as the ending starts the story all over again. Sheep share boundless significance, painkillers become a symbolic commodity, and even the ravings of an elderly, dying man serve as a bold foreshadowing mechanism that only completely reveals itself much later on. He claims that he's glad he won't witness the "extermination," which instantly makes us think the title and the situation, and size up both for cinematic puzzle-solving.

Buñuel's sardonic humor and surrealist imagery are instruments of social indictment and all of Angel's cinematic elements seamlessly come together to focus on Buñuel's core material. In a culture defined by etiquette instead of humanity, Buñuel exposes the underlying artifice and hypocrisy of civilized society.

Interpreting Buñuel's stories as a system of "ideas," as merely intellectually articulated attacks against church, class, and state, is completely off the mark. Buñuel's movies are not manifestos; they don't function on an intellectual level as Godard's cinema does, but at a more subliminal, and, thus, more deeply affecting one. "I don't have ideas," Buñuel once stated in an interview for the French television show. "It's all instinct." Nevertheless, Buñuel delighted in confounding those who tried to find meaning in Angel. For one scene, Buñuel said, "It suddenly occurred to me that Silvia (Pinal) should tie a blindfold around the sheep's eyes and hand Nobile (Enrique Rambal) the dagger. And that was that. Completely improvised, without any thought to whether anything was symbolic. A good symbol of nothing. Despite this, several critics gave various interpretations of the scene. The sheep represented Christianity, the knife, blasphemy...I intended none of that, everything was arbitrary. I only tried to evoke some sort of disturbing image."

Some argue that Buñuel despised human beings. The wisdom and humor at play in Angel indicate quite the opposite. In spite of all their despicable yearnings, his characters all aspire to high ideals. That they are ultimately defeated individuals or, worse yet, hypocrites, gives his humanism its bitter kick and eternal complexity. Angel is a microcosm of Buñuel's contradictory universe of the beautiful and the grotesque.

Buñuel executes Angel with pitch-perfect tone through delicately-scattered surrealist images and a topnotch script. He crafts his ambitious-yet-simple film into a meditative parable, one chock full of cunning imagery that ties together a wide gradient of beliefs and impressions. It's straightforward in design, but it's as complex and thematically rich as the viewer wills it to be.

Angel is a mesmerizing, richly symbolic, allegorical tale on the nature of human behavior: of masters and servants, of excess and want, and of fraternity and alienation. It's endlessly fascinating due to its labyrinthine concepts. The result is an astoundingly complete mystery that will linger with you for days, one that somehow brings spiritual and societal concepts together for a mammoth of a thought-provoking masterpiece that sparks actual desire to partake in the material many times over.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Refugees from a disconcerted affair.

She rolled to the other side and stared at his back.  She tried to remember how it was before.  Before she made him wax it.  At first, the hair on his back and shoulders didn't turn her off.  It excited her and made her want to be with him.  He was new.  The sight of him was new.  Not new now.  His back was almost smooth.  How she wished it was the way it was when she first saw him without a shirt.  To remember and to feel what it was like in the beginning.  The day she dragged him to the beauty salon it was also raining.  Maybe that was when they started falling apart.  He didn't want to go anywhere that day but she finally prevailed.  She stayed in the room with him and held his hand while the beautician ripped the hair from his back, inflicting the torture most women know and willingly endure.  He thought she was there for support.  Right.  She was there because it gave her pleasure to see the hot wax spread over the hair and muslin strips pressed against the skin.  And she had to make sure he would go through with it.  She could almost feel the warmth of the wax and the pain of the violent rip herself.  He screamed.  He wasn't the type to swallow his pain or to feign courage.  He screamed loud.  With every rip.  Really loud.  At this moment, her gaze was fixed on a couple of stray hairs in the back of his neck.  She longed for tweezers.

He could feel her breath against his back and wondered if she was awake.  He concentrated on the pattern the warm breath was making on his skin.  He could always tell if she was asleep by the rhythm and length of each breath.  If the breaths were slow and consistent it meant she was asleep.  Why had he fucked her last night?  He didn't really want to.  Maybe it was that she asked for it, and that hardly ever happened, and why not.  He thought about getting up before she did.  But that meant he would have to make the coffee.  Today, and especially after having sex last night, was not a day he could handle any misunderstandings.  If he made coffee for the both of them, as he always did when he got up first, then she could possibly not take him seriously.  It needed to be clear.  What he was going to say to her needed to be clearly understood.  He could not figure out why it was so important to him that it had to be clear.  It never made any difference to him with the other women before her.  He concluded that she was still asleep.  He had to piss and he would have to get up soon.

She knew it had to be today because he never went anywhere when it was raining.  Definitely, absolutely, without a doubt, today.  She had already covered all bases just to be sure. Even having sex.  If only he would turn around and look at her straight in the eye.  That was the last sign she needed to be sure.  She was waiting for him to get up.  She really wanted to stay in bed all day, making up the hours she didn't sleep all night, but she had things to do and say.  He will get up and make the coffee and then she would have to get up.  She could never resist the smell of coffee.  He used to bring her a cup to bed, but that stopped about a month ago.

The rain stopped.  He got up and went to the bathroom.  She rolled to the other side and concentrated on the sound of his urine falling inside the toilet bowl.  She pictured the yellow urine mixing with the blue toilet water and turning green.  She listened intently as he put the seat down and washed his hands.  He made his way out of the bathroom, into the hallway, around the corner and into the kitchen.  Then, silence.  He had stopped in front of the refrigerator.  He wasn't moving.  She rolled on her back and stared at the ceiling, listening.  Then, he moved.  She heard the freezer door open.  He took the coffee beans out.  She heard him shake the coffee bean bag.  Then he poured some beans in the grinder.  She noticed it was a short pour.  Not enough beans for two.  Then the grinder went off and she mouthed the count.  Ten seconds.  Not the usual twenty. 

She dragged herself out of the warm covers and into the cold and unwelcoming atmosphere of the apartment.  If she had been alone that day, and not in this predicament, she would have lounged on the couch all day, eating ice cream and watching Wong Kar Wai movies.  She headed for the bedroom door, but stopped suddenly and turned around.  She carefully surveyed her surroundings.  Shit.  She knew there would be some battles about the ownership of the artwork.  She didn't care about the books or the CDs, but the artwork and the DVDs, that was another story.  She had to be careful with the words she would choose to tell him, but right now she couldn't think.  All she wanted was her morning coffee.  She walked to the bathroom and checked her appearance in the mirror.  She never went to bed without removing her make-up even is she was totally fucked up.  But last night she didn't give a shit had not removed it.  She started to tame her hair, but stopped, realizing it was better to leave it alone.  Unruly hair went perfectly with raccoon eyes and sleep depravation. She looked like a glamorous character from one of those artsy movies about doomed drug addicts.  Chrissie Hynde or Joan Jett after an all-nighter.  It was romantic.

He opened the coffee bean grinder and proceeded to scoop out the coffee.  He paused in mid-air and stared at the espresso machine.  Yea, it was hers.  But she hardly ever made the coffee.  Shouldn't things belong to those who use them?  Not only that, but she didn't give a shit about it and didn't treat it properly.  The few times she used the machine, she left the coffee grind inside the filter basket, and he always had to wash it himself.  It wasn't fair.  The scoop, full of coffee, dangled from his fingers as he plotted the appropriation of the machine.  He unscrewed the group handle from the shower head and saw the filter was clean.  He smiled.  Good.  She hadn't used it yesterday.  He put the contents of the coffee grinder in the filter, filling it half way.  He packed the ground coffee in the filter, then placed it back on the portafilter.  Enough for one shot.  He stared at the contraption in his hand for a few seconds and then at the grinder.

Standing out of sight around the corner of the kitchen, she witnessed this new hesitation at his morning ritual.  She remembered their first fight, almost two years ago.  It was over the stupid coffee beans and whether it was better to put them in the freezer, refrigerator or the pantry.  He insisted it was the freezer even after she told him she read in Gourmet magazine that it was a cool, dry place and not necessarily the refrigerator that was best for the beans.  She showed him various articles and he retorted with articles of his own supporting his coffee-freezing modus operandum.  They fought for a day and a half until she gave up.  The following day she went to Williams Sonoma and bought him a fancy metal canister for the coffee as a peace offering.  He used it for about two weeks, storing it in the pantry, but then he went back to storing the beans, in their bag, in the freezer.  She stood there and watched him twist the lid and listened to the sound of the air vacuum as it gently exploded, then he filled the reservoir with water.  The sound of the water falling into the reservoir mixed with the sound of the rain running down the gutters.  He turned towards the window and saw her standing there.  She turned to the window as well.  It was raining again.  "Hey," he said. He flipped the switch of the espresso machine and headed for the living room.  She stood in the middle of the kitchen, disoriented and feeling out of place. 

She had lived in that apartment for five years, but it felt as if she just had stepped into that small, cramped kitchen space.  She could not make up her mind in which direction to turn. Two weeks ago, it would have been to the left and towards the cupboard containing the coffee cups.  She would have taken out two espresso cups and spoons and placed each on their corresponding saucer.  She felt lost, but strangely exhilarated and on the verge of tears.  It was exhilaration at the possibility of something new.  Of change.  Again.  The espresso maker was getting ready to start brewing.  She looked at the machine, listening to the steam leak from under the gasket.  The thick, brown substance started to make its way out, drop by drop, getting thinner and watery, until it became a thick stream of beige foam.  Her favorite part.  Then he came in and avoided eye contact.  She stepped back and leaned against the sink to make room for him.  She should have left, but she was unable to move.  She wanted to watch and see what he would do next, he knowing she was watching him.  He took one cup out of the cupboard, placed it on a saucer and poured his shot.  She knew exactly what to do now.

"What is the most pathetic thing you have ever cooked and then eaten?" he asked her genuinely interested in her response.  It was their first date and over the years she had learned, the hard way, never to be honest with a man at the beginning.  “Be yourself” is the most erroneous dating advice ever given.  So, at the moment, she could not disclose that she was culinarily impaired and that maybe the meaning of pathetic to him meant accomplished to her.  Pathetic to most people was two pieces of white bread and a slice of ham, but to her it was slaving over a hot stove.  Funny, she couldn't remember what she answered.  Did she lie or did she embellish the truth?  His pet name for her became la chef pathetique because her specialty was pathetic food, in particular white bread ham sandwiches, rice cakes with peanut butter, quesadillas, ground beef patties with cottage cheese, Lean Pockets, and tuna fish from a can. 

They got along because they were willing to play along with each other's romantic and fantastic shenanigans.  Hers were half-assed recreations of Godard film scenes, and his, annoying renditions of Tom Waits songs.  After a little harmless stalking, he had plotted to meet her at a diner:  “a melodramatic nocturnal scene” Tom would have said.  Why did he pick her?  Simple.  The way she was dressed, her style, the way she moved.  She was odd and it was obvious from the way she sported her trenchcoat and black beret that reality wasn't her thing and neither was it his. 

There had their fun together and now it was over.

She made herself a simple breakfast.  Not eggs and sausage and a side of toast, but a plain, white bread ham and cheese sandwich.  He glanced over from the living room to the mirror on the wall that reflected what was going on in the kitchen.  If she offered him a sandwich, what would he say?  He was hungry, but how would she interpret him saying yes to the offer?  He watched her diligently flatten the sandwich as if it were raw pastry dough and waited.  The offer never came.  Funny how the things that made him want to smother her with kisses now made him want to smash her face in.  She went around to the living room and sat on the floor at the coffee table, right across from him.  He drank his espresso and she ate her flat white bread sandwich.  Their actions were mechanic and effortless despite each other's presence.  They pretended the other wasn't there and strangled their emotions.  Perhaps they didn't have to pretend.  Their presence in relation to each other was no longer relevant to them.  They no longer existed as a couple.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Funny, sad, cruel, crystalline and puzzling.

Someone I just met has been entertaining me with tales of debauchery which made me think of Charles Bukowski's short stories, Factotum (Bent Hamer's film), Scandinavian cinema and my own aesthetic, preoccupations and obsessions.  As I read about his shenanigans, I imagined him caught up in absurd Aki Kaurimaki or Jens Lien scenarios; not because that's the way he painted it, but because that's the way I saw it. 

I identify with Nordic filmmakers and I'm influenced by their obsession with misery.  I don't see life as a drama so I can't write straight dramas.  (I've tried.)  I see life as a deadpan, black, absurd comedy and that filter transforms my experiences, which are then manifested into my work.  Kierkegaard defined the absurd as"to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith" (Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, 1849).  So, I guess, in creating my narratives, I'm not only constructing characters that do not act rationally (though they do not have to be irrational), but I have to impose an overarching vision of the piece driven by instinct, rather than rationality.

The search for truth never ceases to be the driving force of my narratives, and I guess you could say I am concerned with the disavowal of continuity, verbal and visual, and doing away with our received perception of language and vision.  That to me is ultimately the background for a metaphysical search for the essence of things.  However, I would like my instinctual search for humanity to remain only a poignant afterthought that highlights the tragedy of not being able to cry at laughter or laugh at sobbing.

My problem is that there isn't much of a market in mainstream U.S.A. for comedies with bitter aftertastes and I constantly have to weigh what I'm told I should write vis a vis want I to write.  The screenplays I write for myself would never sell.  At the moment I'm developing two projects as my potential  first feature.  One takes Roman Polanski's one location, atmospheric horror classic Repulsion as model and the second, Roy Andersson's You, the Living.  I will write about Repulsion at a later date, but I discuss You, the Living below.

You, the Living is set in Stockholm; the society, artistic language and people displayed are generally unmistakably Nordic. Yet its subject, humankind's misery in a selfish world, reaches far beyond its setting and is universally applicable. Despite the seriousness of its theme, the film itself is a lot more cheerful and laden with humor than one might expect. This film is a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy, depending on your sensitivities, and not a depressing, black reality tour of human nature. Andersson fully understands that living is so complicated to most of us that the only thing that saves us is our sense of humor.

You, the Living is composed of tightly interrelated vignettes filmed in single takes from a fixed camera position. It begins with a man sleeping on a couch then waking up saying he's had a dream that bombers are coming. Members of a brass band rehearse and irritate family and neighbors, and eventually gather to perform happily together. In another vignette, Mia, a heavy woman sitting on a park bench, complains that no one understands her, not even her boyfriend or her dog, who patiently listen to her rant. Later, Mia is seen at her boyfriend's mother's house. She states that she's happy to be there, but then Mia calls the woman a sadist for serving non-alcoholic beer with such a nice dinner. "With all the misery in the world, how can we not get drunk?" she laments. Loneliness and cruelty walk hand in hand in Andersson's world view.

From time to time, Andersson returns to an austere, anonymous, over-lit bar, an emblematic place where people sit staring into their glasses and only aroused when the bartender calls out for last orders. In one of the funniest and darkest vignettes, a man stuck in traffic tells us about his terrible nightmare in which he attended a family dinner of a family that was not his. The party ends with the man being strapped to an electrical chair as the strange family looks on, nibbling on popcorn in anticipation of the execution. Each scene averages 90 seconds, makes a small point and moves on, some characters turning up in later shots, some not. In the final tableau, an armada of warplanes fills the sky over a neat little European town apparently intent on destroying everything and everyone we have just seen. Like life, this is a funny, sad, cruel film, both crystalline and puzzling, hypnotic in its intensity.

Filmed in washed-out pastels, deep-focus long takes and slightly hazy interiors, the film creates its own parallel and slanted worldview much like Aki Kaurismäki's films from neighboring Finland. They reduce the real world to its bare essentials without compromising their characters and their humor often comes from simple observation of what we do every day. The situations are not really absurd; they are simply the insignificant moments from real life presented as the main act, which reveals the real personalities and preoccupations of the people going through them with a clarity that many dramas strive for but rarely attain. If You, the Living belongs in an artistic tradition, it would be Surrealism or the theatre of the absurd and its particular affinities are with Luis Buñuel and Eugene Ionesco.

The film lacks a plot in a traditional sense and the characters are not so much protagonists as they are recognizable faces in a tableaux vivant. However, the different characters who appear and reappear in different scenes still meet each other and their stories are inevitably intertwined. What most of these characters have in common is their apparent loneliness despite being surrounded by other people. People speak to each other but it's as if they speak past each other. We try to reach out to others but shut them out when they try to reach us. You, the Living is about dreams and nightmares versus reality and it illustrates Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's claim that "all human communication is miscommunication."

The strange, misty locations and huge, elaborately built sets give the film a giant, intimate-epic quality that is more impressive than any CGI, although some of the most stunning effects must surely have been created, or at least assisted, digitally. In the movie's most lyrical passage, a rocker chick describes a fantasy in which she is married to the guitarist and lead singer of a band called the Black Devils. She sits on the bed of their tiny apartment in her bridal gown, while he plays her a languorous guitar solo of love from the kitchen table. Outside the window a landscape moves past as if from the window of a train; the apartment slows down and pulls into a station, where a crowd of well-wishers gathers to greet the young couple. It is an extraordinary and unusually moving technical achievement.

Andersson is a true original who makes emotionally complex, carefully constructed and meticulously realized films. Given that he controls every aspect of his work--from the conception of his screenplays through the casting of his actors and the construction of his sets-- it's not surprising that You, the Living is only his fourth feature-length film in a career that began more than 40 years ago. His films are profoundly different from the work of any other filmmaker, with a technical and compositional rigor that puts his films in a different league from most. While You, the Living is abstract and elusive, it is never dull or inaccessible. It's an extraordinary vision of lost souls adrift in worlds that are resplendent with vivid, hyperreal drabness, and everywhere there's the disquieting sense that we are witnessing the last hours of a doomed world.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Recipe for Pounded Ass

Ask any man what's his favorite sex scene in a movie and ten out of ten times he will mention 9 1/2 Weeks, Secretary or Last Tango in Paris. The three movies are about sexist relationships where men hold on to an outdated macho concept in a world where women no longer willingly play a submissive role so they have to invent silly sexual games aimed at humiliating women. The films advance the same male fantasy--that if women become strong, then men become weak, small and ineffectual. Of the three, Tango does not take itself seriously and is the most interesting because of its ironic tone and parody of two influential film styles, 1950s Hollywood and the French New Wave. Bertolucci critiques and condemns the passé ideas and attitudes which informed these styles, but because the film quickly became a cultural object encrusted with layers of largely irrelevant criticism, its deeper meanings were ignored.

The plot is simple. Young Jeanne (Maria Schneider) goes to rent a Paris apartment and finds that mysterious, middle-aged Paul (Marlo Brando) also wants to rent the place. Within moments these total strangers are fornicating. It’s a brief and impulsive encounter, and a shock to both and the audience. They decide to continue meeting there for regular trysts, agreeing never to ask each other their names or any other personal information. Their encounters are a way to escape from the troubles of their real-world lives. Later, we find out that Paul is coping with his wife’s recent suicide, and that Jeanne is trying to decide if she really loves an earnest, shallow, self-absorbed young filmmaker (New Wave regular Jean Pierre Leaud).

Sex and preposterous scenes drive the narratives of the three films. Among them is Tango’s famous butter sequence, where Paul sexually dominates a willing Jeanne as he bizarrely sodomizes her on the dirty floor while instructing her to recite text. This scene in particular has been grossly misinterpreted when in fact it’s meant to be ironic and ridiculous. Many people missed the director’s ironic tone in these scenes partly because the irony is subtle. Also, seeing it required familiarity with the consciousness and style in new films. Bertolucci takes types of people and attitudes common in new films and exaggerates them so that we become distanced from the type or the attitude as we watch critically and often with ridicule. The scene has been misunderstood and thus fetishized by men, making it a source of way too many sodomy-based fantasies. Bertolucci violates our expectations by going further than we are used to and by introducing some element that seems inappropriate, namely, Brando’s acting.

Jeanne walks in to find Paul on the floor eating cheese. He greets her with “There’s some butter in the kitchen.” She tells him she’s in a hurry and that a cab is waiting for her downstairs. He repeatedly orders her to “go get the butter.” Angry, she finally obeys and throws the stick of butter at his feet. “What do you think? That an American in an empty apartment, eating cheese and drinking water is interesting?” she asks as she sits on the floor. She finds a hollow space beneath the dirty carpet and when he tries to pry it open, she tells him not to; it might be a family’s secret hiding place. “What about that? Can I open that?” he asks, pointing to her crotch. She tries to get away from him but he grabs her, unbuttons her pants and slides the butter towards them with his foot. He turns her over, lowers her pants, takes a dab of butter and goes to town while making her repeat after him: “Holy family. Church of good citizens. The children are tortured until they tell their first lie. Where the will is broken by repression. Where freedom is assassinated by egotism…family…”

At the heart of Bertolucci’s failure to establish a coherent perspective on events in the film through style and tone is Brando’s performance. His overwhelming screen presence is partially responsible for the confusion about the film. Brando uses the same acting style that had worked so well in his American 1950s movies but here it clashes with Bertolucci’s more modern, European attitudes and style. The sheer strength of Brando’s personality in a film like this is jarring and his old method acting is often quite out of place. Brando’s acting style makes us feel a closeness which is unsuitable for Paul’s brutality and insensitivity But there’s nothing likable about Paul. He is selfish, self-pitying, indulgent and hostile. He’s a man that hates a false middle-class way of being, with its phony niceness and artificial goodness, and he’s become a monster in revolt against the majority in his culture. In Tango, one often feels that Brando is not really acting, but that he is rather expressing a real hostility toward society. He obviously feels that it’s better to be openly and deliberately ugly and brutal than to subscribe to bourgeois superficiality, and the film was a perfect vehicle for expressing such ideas. But his hatred of bourgeois society does not justify taking out this hostility on women. As Brando’s acting style draws us close to the character, it only leaves us puzzled as to what he is really all about, or what we are to feel towards him. Brando’s acting seems inappropriate in the context and shatters our belief in the scene and ultimately in the whole movie.

Impersonal sex is the basic form for encounters between lonely people in our culture. One could expect anyone with a healthy view of sexuality to be disgusted by Paul’s treatment of Jeanne. But people evidently saw their encounters as merely an accurate version of the way things are, with nothing particularly wrong with it. Tango reflects many overused myths and stereotypes of women in the treatment of Jeanne. The film reflects men’s beliefs that women are inferior beings, made for men’s pleasure; that women really want to be humiliated and treated brutally; that women are essentially cold and rejecting, and will cut a man down once he’s become vulnerable; that women are essentially frivolous characters who don't know what they want or where they are headed; they are incapable of deep feeling or, true commitment. It may be true that Bertolucci opens up the film form to certain realities about sexual relations and is thus contributes to overthrowing remaining puritan ideas about sex, but it’s a pity that he remained within negative stereotypes about women.

So it’s with irony (hopefully much more than Bertolucci was able to successfully convey) that I share with you with this recipe inspired by the butter scene (courtesy of Chef David Warner). Girls, have your man cook it and you’ll be giving him what he thinks he wants without you even having to take your clothes off. Realistically, it’s as close he’ll ever get to his fantasy of pounding ass.

Start by making a rub. Put one tablespoon of coriander seed and fennel seed, three bay leaves and one teaspoon black peppercorn in a coffee grinder and grind. Lightly toast in oven.

For the lube, mix one teaspoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon mint, one tablespoon lemon zest, one tablespoon parsley and one stick of butter.

Pound one 16 oz lamb ass to 1/4” thickness. You will really have to pound hard, and depending on the intensity, you may have to pound that ass for a while. When the ass is tender and ready, marinade in sherry vin and extra virgin olive oil.

Massage butter ointment all over marinated ass. Prior to grilling add rub then flash grill to medium rare.

Serve with tossed salad.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where I get it from.

I don’t come from a long line of artists and filmmakers.  My maternal grandmother liked to make crafts, sew and loved fashion, but that’s about it. My mother was an opera singer who gave it all up to have babies, which is what she wanted most in the whole world.  My sister loves the arts, but has no artistic talent whatsoever. (She’s still waiting for it to surface. She’s sure it will come.) And my brother could not care less.  He even has bad taste in movies. 

When I asked my mom and grandma where I got it from, they said, “Your grandpa of course.” Of course.  It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about this.  He loved movies. Any movie. From the old Mexican melodramas to the most obscure European arthouse oeuvre.  Whenever I mentioned a Fellini or a classic Western to my mom and grandma, they’d say, “Yup. Seen it. We had to go with your grandpa. He was always dragging us to see all these weird movies.”  Funny that these weird, obscure movies made their way into a small mining town in Mexico. 

My grandpa was also obsessed with shooting Super 8 movies of the family, especially when we went on vacation.  I got to see myself as a 5 year old, frolicking in San Felipe against the back drop of amazing Baja sunsets.  Sadly, we lost those family treasures in the fire. He also collected camera equipment and he gave me my first 35mm camera with a telephoto lens that was bigger than I was at the time.  He had a darkroom and he taught me to make prints before I even took a photography class in high school.

He also loved dancing. He actually met my grandma at a dance hall. What she was doing there, I have no idea. She hated dancing.  She recalled seeing my grandpa doing the lindy hop, throwing girls over his head and under his legs and thinking there was no way he was going to do that to her. He didn’t.

Most of all, he loved Hollywood musicals. 

I think I was about 9 when I visited him at his house in Ensenada.  My grandma and he had just split up and it felt weird to visit him under the circumstances.  We (the grandkids) had spent most of our childhood with them.  They took us everywhere and they made our childhood great in every possible way and now it wasn’t great anymore.  I felt resentment towards him and I really didn’t want to be there.  He opened the refrigerator door, pointed at a huge piece of beef and said, “I’m going to cook you a t-bone steak.” I wondered why he thought I was into t-bone steaks.  I figured it was because I was getting chunky.  “Do you want to watch a movie?” he asked. I nodded.  He took out a VHS tape and shoved it into the player.  It was the documentary chronicling MGM’s 50 years of musicals: That’s Entertainment. He was so into it. I wound up watching that documentary and Part II every single time I visited, and those images of those people doing amazing dances were ingrained in my mind. I think that’s where my love for dance began.

That's Entertainment (Jack Haley, Jr./1974)
(could not find Part I scenes)

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming/1939)
The best scene wasn't even in the movie. And now Youtube is not letting me embed.

Scarecrow dance.

Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney/1953)
Bob Fosse before he became Bob Fosse.

Royal Wedding (Stanley Donen/1951)
Hat Rack Dance
I could watch Fred Astaire dance all day and night, with no water and no food.

The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli/1953)
Cyd and Fred do it on the dance floor.

This sequence made me understand what sex was about even though I didn't know it then.

Saturday Night Fever (John Badham/1977)

As was everyone else in the world, all the kids in my neighborhood were obsessed with Fever.  We got together almost every evening and danced disco at the disco; a neighbor’s empty garage. Her parents hung a disco ball, set up a stereo and that’s where you could find us the Summer of 1978.  One day it was decided that we would have a competition and that each pair would dance one song from the album. The adults would be the judges. My cousin Aaron and I were the best dancers and we knew it. Everyone knew it. So those bitches gave us "How Deep is Your Love," a slow dance.  We had not choreographed a routine for a slow song. “Staying Alive,” “You Should Be Dancing,” those were our songs! They gave us the last spot and we waited.  I don’t know how we did it, but we got on that dance floor and made up an awesome dance on the spot.  It was flawless.  Everyone was blown away and they had no choice but to give us the win.

Flashdance (Adrian Lyne/1983)
This movie turned me into a dancing maniac. I was already taking ballet and jazz lessons, but I liked to recreate the Maniac sequence every day, for a whole year.  Yes, that's what I did in private in my room. Smoking pot and drinking came a couple of years later.

Funny Face (Stanley Donen/1957)
I saw this movie again during my nihilistic-existential phase. I wore nothing but black turtlenecks and skinny black pants for two years.

Summer Stock (Charles Walters/1950)
"Get Happy"
I love this woman. I may be a gay man in a woman's body.

Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci/1970)

There are excesses in The Conformist, but they are balanced by scenes of unusual beauty and vitality.  It has been suggested out that the film has a flaw; that every shot is a visual delight of settings and sights that overwhelm the narrative. This is not so. The film's style, both in movement and design, is symbolic of Fascism's rise and fall and therefore critical to the narrative.  Bertolucci avoids standard cinematic grammar, shirking dissolves, track-ins, voiceovers or other motifs that would traditionally indicate a flashback is about to occur. It certainly works to keep the audience from settling into a conventional story, but it also portrays something more profound.

Check out this absolutely marvelous sequence in a Parisian dance hall in which Anna and Marcello's wife dance a funny, more or less sapphic, tango.

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (David Mirkin/1997)
This is the dance I'd make my wedding party do. If I ever got married. Which I won't. But I'm just saying.

The Tango Lesson (Sally Potter/1997)
Libertango: the best three--I mean foursome ever.

Band of Outsiders (Jean Luc Godard/1964)
This is it. This is the coolest. This is my favorite dance sequence. I even paid homage to it in my latest short (in post).

The Pajama Game (Stanley Donen/1957)
Godard said the dance above was inspired by Bob Fosse's spectacularly jazzy and syncopated "Steam Heat" performed at a union rally by Gladys Hotchkiss (Carol Haney) and two other union members dressed in tight-fitting men's black suits and derby hats.

Shall We Dansu (Masayuki Suo/1996)
My love affair with Koji Yakusho began with this hilarious movie.

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder/1959)
Tango: "Daphne, you're leading again."

About six years ago, I went on a second date to a salsa nightclub.  My date (who is now my friend and you will see why), a Latino man that acts whiter than a hummus-loving Banksy fan, fancied himself a first-rate salsa dancer.  (Actually, all Latino men think they can dance salsa.) He pulled me into the dance floor and it didn’t take very long for me to conclude that he did not know how to dance. But he thought he did and very well.  So I did what any dumb woman in her wrong mind would do. I started to lead. The whole affair quickly escalated into a bloodless UHF fight set to afro-caribbean beats.  He finally gave up and when I looked at his face, I knew our romantic association was over before it even began.  So, the scene below is very close to my heart because it's the story of my life. I have to lead.