Category Archives: Movies

8 ½

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

Sunday, January 18: And last night, just before midnight, I finished watching Fellini’s 8 ½. A fitting end, I think, to the Thirty-Three Project. This is one of my absolute favorite films; I have never not enjoyed watching it. Marcello Mastroianni and his black suit and his little black cowboy hat and his never-ending parade of beautiful actresses. It’s visually striking, it’s funny, it’s honest, but also, 8 ½ is about memoir, about struggling to tell one’s own story. This is something I’ve spent the last year of my life doing.

I mentioned in my post about The Battle of Algiers that if I made a narrative film I would want to make a film like that one. The truth is, I would probably try to make a film like 8 ½. (“Try” being the operative word here). Throughout my life, and especially in my creative work, I’ve found myself pulled back to memoir, or at least drawing deeply from the well of personal experience. Of the material I wrote in college, the strongest now seems to be the things that were ripped from life. And the best moments I found in Drain the Gulf! were borrowed from life, as well. And then I spent a year writing about myself.

So, this is the perfect film to end the Thirty-Three Project. A story about a story-teller telling the story of his own life.

And now, I can grab hands with all my memories and dance in a line down the beach, around the rocketship, happily facing the next thirty-three years of media consumption.

You really should own a copy of 8 ½, by the way. Buy it here on the ol’ Internet.

Europa Europa

January 16, New York: When I was a teenager, my uncle Fred and I had a routine. During my visits to Louisiana, on one night we would go down to the video store, pick out a movie, and bring it home to watch on Fred’s massive TV with 360 degree surround sound. Two guys having a movie night. But we’re not talking about giant action blockbusters or otherwise typical big-tv-guys’-night films (Looking at you, Shawshank). No, Fred introduced me to quality foreign cinema. This was really where my film education began.

There are a handful of movies I remember watching from that period, but probably Europa Europa most of all. It really stuck with me. There were others (Rouge, Blanc, and Bleu, for example), but this is the one I think of when I think of those nights. As it was the story of a teenager— a young Jew hiding his identity to survive in Nazi Germany— the age resonance might have been a part of why.

As I sat down to watch it this time I realized there was only one thing I remembered: the foreskin problem. Much of the film focuses on the fact that “Solly” is circumcised. The one thing that would give him away. The film does indeed open with Solly’s circumcision as an infant. But there is much more to this movie; it’s really quite good. Solly’s story is unbelievable, but true. It is remarkable to see a ground level view of World War II on the Soviet-Nazi front. The mass delusion and indoctrination on both sides is fascinating; Solly is in both a Soviet orphanage and a Hitler Youth school. And, as a bonus: a tiny, teenaged Julie Delpy in perhaps her very first role.

It’s not very easy to find Europa Europa these days. I bought a used DVD through the Amazons and had it shipped to me.

The Battle of Algiers

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 15, New York: From the moment this film began, or more specifically, from the moment the Ennio Morricone score kicked in, I was falling in love all over again. The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the Algerian insurgency against French occupation in the 1950s. Though we see a carefully balanced portrait of pain on both sides, we spend a lot of time running up and down the warren stairs of the Casbah. We see a relatively true depiction of the Algerian War, shot just a couple of years after its conclusion.

I love this film because not a lot of other films have been made like this one. To broadly categorize it, The Battle of Algiers is a documentary-style narrative film. This is a set of techniques largely over-used in recent years: hand-held camera, real locations. But Gillo Pontecorvo (the filmmaker) surpasses the borrowing of aesthetic and makes something that sits between genres. His film looks almost identical to the newsreel footage of the day and moreso because he only cast a single professional actor. And so we follow normal people up and down those Casbah stairs, through checkpoints, into crowded cafes, and meanwhile, that Morricone score keeps ratcheting the tension higher and higher.

Leaving film school, I chose a documentary path, away from the narrative feature film aspirations I entered school with. It’s unlikely at this point that I return to narrative filmmaking in my career, but if I were to make a narrative film I would want it to feel like this— borrowed from another visual genre in such a way that you forgot that you are watching a narrative film. As unlikely as it is that I’ll return to narrative, it’s even more unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to make as courageous or powerful of a film as this one. Deeply complex, provocative, and true. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Seriously, buy Battle of Algiers.

Tampopo

January 11, New York: It was about twenty degrees outside last night. But it was time to watch Tampopo, so Jill and I went around the corner and waited outside in the crowd gathered in that freezing air, all to eat the best ramen in the city. Full and warm and sleepy after we slurped down to the bottoms of our bowls, we came home, pulled up some covers and settled in.

Tampopo is the weirdest little film about loving food (and loving film) you’ll ever see. The titular character (whose name means “dandelion”) owns a little ramen shop next to the highway. A truck driver (the Western genre drifter) decides to help her make her noodles the best in the city. That story, plus the vignettes that surround it, unfold in an absurd little universe in which the pleasures of the palette trump all else.

Tampopo is not just about food, but also about film. It begins in a movie theater with an enigmatic white-suited man (a gangster, perhaps?) articulating the supreme pleasure of watching a film. This character and his lover appear at various points to mix food and sex in sensual and absurd ways. It is he who delivers the most impassioned monologue of the film, dying (foretold by his opening monologue about the monologues of dying characters), and telling the story of wild boars in winter, their intestines filled with yams.

It’s an odd film, but so good. It’s fun throughout, the main story is so cute, and you will never look at ramen the same way again.

Buy Tampopo on the internet.

The War Room

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 11, New York: One of the great all-time documentaries, The War Room is the benchmark political insider tale of the 1990s. What’s the next evolution after giving reporters enough access to write a tell-all book? Let them make a documentary. So DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (and, notably, RJ Cutler) followed George Stephanopoulos and James Carville around behind the scenes of the first Clinton campaign and you see their genius at work.

This film is pretty revolutionary in terms of political reporting. There is this tiny window of time in which it’s technologically feasible to tell a story like this, before it’s a cable-led news cycle makes it politically infeasible. As a documentary, it’s pretty staid vérité. The only time you even notice the camera’s there is in the one scene where you are awkwardly following Carville and Mary Matlin out to the parking lot, shot from down by their feet as if the camera’s being snuck along. Yet the access alone, the unguarded moments of Carville’s and Stephanopoulos’ wheeling and dealing make it genius.

There are two things that stuck out in a contemporary viewing. First is that this is the bones of The West Wing. It’s exactly how Sorkin originally envisioned it: the candidate in the background and the operators up front. It’s process over substance and that is plenty compelling enough to tell a whole story. The second is watching James Carville give a little speech accusing Roger Ailes spreading conspiracy theories that would be as much at home in 2015 as it is in 1992. Same Carville, same Ailes. A lot hasn’t changed since 1992.

The War Room is incredible for its unguarded access. But it is an accident of timing. The right moment in the evolution of political news. It’s the timing that’s the genius.

Watch The War Room thanks to the internet.

The Godfather

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 10, New York: Another post, another incredible Francis Ford Coppola film. What is there possibly to say about The Godfather that’s not already been said? That Al Pacino is such an amazing actor? Or Marlon Brando? Or James Caan? Or Robert Duvall? That any of these men so fully occupy their roles you forget how famous they are and everything else they’ve ever played?

Can you talk about the genius of the first scene and its slow zoom out from the face of the mortuary owner asking a favor of Don Corleone? Or the textbook perfect sound design of the passing train drowning out Salazo’s killing in the restaurant? I say textbook perfect because it was literally what was taught from in film school.

I love this movie. And the second. An unalloyed and pure love. One of Jill and I’s favorite nights early in our relationship was when we watched both and ate an unlimited supply of butter pasta and garlic bread on our couch. (We would have done the same with Star Wars, but we could never figure out what to serve.)

You probably haven’t re-watched The Godfather enough. You should do that right now.

The Killer

January 10, New York: It was a real gift to American cinema that Hong Kong let us borrow John Woo. He helped redefine action films as a cinematographer’s game, not just the domain of the special effects unit. Added to explosions and gunshots came perfectly composed, gorgeous shots of men holding guns. You only have to look to the latest Bond film to see how far this trend has come.

But of all the films I’ve seen of Woo’s, The Killer from his Hong Kong days is still my favorite. Great, simple story; catchy ballad of a theme song; and holy crap could Chow Yun-Fat be any cooler with those two handguns blazing? It’s incredible how quickly the premise is laid out; what would be called the first act by Aristotelian definition is completed in all of ten minutes. Jenny’s blind, our hero loves her, the triad is scheming against him.

Then there is the cinematography. You see it here in two ways. First is that Woo chooses incredible Hong Kong backdrops for his scenes. The dragon boat festival, for example, is visually stunning. The soaring mountain/city vistas or the lush, bleached beaches. Second is that Woo knows here the fuck to put a camera. You know this from his later films, but here you see it in glimpses of genius. The surprise of a camera’s vantage where you would normally not see through it, creating a perfect composition in space of man and gun and background.

Sure, it’s violent and sometimes silly and more bullets are fired in this film than I think were manufactured in whatever year it was made, but goddamnit The Killer is so cool.

I had to buy this as a DVD and have it shipped to me, surprisingly.

Gimme Shelter

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 6, New York: The greatest of rock documentaries. What happens when you combine masters of documentary filmmaking with incredible subjects with events of historical import? Some of the best filmmaking magic in the biz. There’s one scene to remember vividly from this film: Mick Jagger watching Altamont on the flatbed editor while someone gets knifed in the audience. His hyperawareness of being filmed watching himself being filmed is palpable. The ironic distance between a Mick who knows something bad is happening but not the extent and a Mick who knows what previous Mick does not, but also knows enough to make no substantive comment. Gimme Shelter!.

As a lover of the Stones (and particularly of Sticky Fingers) it’s incredible to watch young Mick prancing about on stage or ageless Keith jamming out to “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals in his snakeskin cowboy boots. It’s a concert film of a different era— when viewers had the patience to watch the whole song. As a student of history, the Altamont scenes are riveting. The tension is palpable between the Angels and hippies and the menace of the Angels oozes out of the screen, especially when they’re standing three feet from Mick on the stage. You find yourself watching your protagonists, thinking, “Get out of there! It’s not safe!”

As a fan, it’s amazing, but my favorite way to watch this film is as a producer of and student of documentary technique. People call this a vérité masterpiece. It is, to an extent, as it is a Maysles Brothers movie. But that misses two innovations that the Maysles introduce. The first comes at the very start with drummer Charlie Watts as the filmmakers sit him down in front of a flatbed editor and explain to him, “Having this footage of you watching the footage will allow us to cut to any point in the film easily.” Brilliant. And, of course, that sets the filmmakers up to give you the band’s reaction to the events at Altamont. Or in Mick Jagger’s case, the stoic non-reaction.

The second innovation I learned about when I watched this in college. Altamont was supposed to be the Woodstock of the West— hundreds of thousands of concert-goers scattered across hundreds of acres. Two Maysles were not going to be able to cover all of that themselves. So a call went out: anyone with a 16mm film camera, come to Altamont and help us shoot. Dozens came, including a young George Lucas with a USC Film School camera he’d checked out for the weekend. All of these perspectives gave the editors much wider coverage to work with. Instead of only seeing the performers and the shapeless crowd (from 2-3 cameras) we see the characters in the audience and the Angels’ aggression building over the day. An event with an open call to dozens of camera operators— Gimme Shelter is, perhaps, the first crowdsourced documentary.

I loved re-watching this one. And my quickness to call it the greatest rock documentary also made me resolve to watch Led Zeppelin in The Song Remains the Same for the first time in 2015.

You can watch Gimme Shelter from the Internet. And you should. Even you, Aaron-who-hates-the-Stones.

Apocalypse Now

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 2, New York: Now this is a movie.

From the opening strains of “This is the End” over the helicopters and the exploding treeline, Apocalypse Now sends shivers down my spine. As a young, aspiring filmmaker I watched this film countless times. Its technique is incredible, the performances are jaw-dropping, and it is just the most fucked-up vision of insanity in war you’ve ever laid eyes on.

Every actor is incredible. Martin Sheen’s breakdown performance at the start of the film, Robert Duvall’s catch-phrase-laden Kilgore, cool cat Laurence Fishburne dancing all over the deck of the boat. Hell, look, there’s young Harrison Ford in that early scene with the creepy soft-faced spook who only ever delivers one line: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

As a young man I saw this film as a text with infinite opportunities to learn from. As a film it is an unalloyed masterpiece. I saw that again today with perhaps one addition: as a kid I never appreciated the genocidal disaster that was the Belgian Congo as told in the source text Heart of Darkness. There is an unsubtle political statement here in connecting Vietnam to the Congo that I missed the first time around.

You should go re-watch this movie. You should do that right now.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

January 2, New York: There is an inherent danger in revisiting comedic favorites, I’ve learned. Your expectations are high, but with your distance from the material you are discovering many of the jokes anew. Monty Python, though funny, was hardly the wriggling bucket of hilarity I remembered it being from my teenaged years of obsessively loving this movie.

Jill and I watched it together last night (we had to order a DVD because you can’t stream it anywhere on the ol’ internet) and we did laugh with frequency. Various points tickled out a chortle and there were the occasional guffaws. But were we rolling around on the couch with tears coming out of our eyes? No.

I think cinematic comedy has evolved rapidly in the last few decades. Comedic expectation quickly gobbles up and digests new high water marks like Monty Python in their heyday and then mixes their techniques into the next generations of comedic works along with more and more laughing-bits until the original source material is no longer easily identifiable. The things that make us laugh in this film seem few and far between because more recent comic works have taken the absolute funniest bits and further compressed them so that its laugh after laugh after laugh.

The other difference here is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is, at its core, a series of Monty Python sketches. There are a few recurring characters and vaguely a plot super-structure, but its basically just “Hey you Pythons, do your work but set it in the middle ages.” This feels like another aspect of the humor challenges— contemporary comedies are plot-driven funny trains, not wandering journeys through the lands of the laughs.

But look, this movie was still funny. Gilliam’s animations were great; the knights who say nee and their shrubbery; the battle with the black knight; the fearsome bunny and the holy hand grenade: all really great.

Okay, so in order to buy this film, you’re going to have to order the DVD. I know, I know.

Brazil

December 9, Flying from JFK to SFO: I love this movie and I love this song. The song is perfectly in my register and I find myself singing it often. The movie is just the sort of oddball perplexity I’ve always had a weak spot for. It’s such a wonderful picture of byzantine bureaucracy, hilarious in its over-farcical concepts and technology stripped of its casings. The ducts featured throughout (and especially at the beginning: “I want to talk to you about ducts.”) are incredible set pieces, tying this world together no matter what scene you’re in.

Brazil takes place in my favorite location: the nameless European city riddled with mal-intended dysfunction. I love this city here, I love it in Alain Robbe-Grillet, and I’ve tried to write it myself a few times. It is the city with no exterior world, the wholly-contained metropolis. (“Where should we go?” “Anywhere.” “There isn’t anywhere.”)

Not the first time, but a memorable time when I watched this movie it was in a little terrible movie theater across the street from USC. They had a well-curated midnight movie series and we all made it out for this one. It was the perfect setting in which to watch Brazil: cramped, warm, stuffy. And the projector kept breaking throughout the film, at one point nearly burning through the print on the screen. I can’t even remember if we finished the film.

This time, though, I definitely finished the film and was a bit disappointed by it at the very finish. I remembered the ending quickly into the final sequence (Spoiler) and that it was all a dream. Watching this time and knowing that reveal was coming, the ending dream sequence seemed to drag. Oh for the first time viewing again. Or for the dysfunctional metropolis movie theater in Los Angeles, long since torn down.

Take a trip not to Brazil but to someplace that is not Brazil in a movie called Brazil, by purchasing this film not as a film but as a computer file on the internet.

Goodfellas

November 21, Flying from SFO to JFK: Goodfellas is the most satisfying gangster movie ever made. It’s all about the music. Scorsese pulls from the popular music of the era across Henry Hill’s sordid career, starting right at the beginning with a perfect blood-stained, red-lit freeze frame scored by a swell of big band, right after the very first line of voice-over: “As far back as I can remember, I’d always wanted to be a gangster.”

That technique sticks out throughout the film: I could watch that slow zoom into Robert DeNiro’s face over the overmodulated “Sunshine of our Love” a hundred times and not be sick of it.

It continues right into the end of the film which kicks into black over a punk cover of “My Way”. Scorsese is using all the tools in his toolkit to bring the coolness Hill feels to us, the audience. That incredible (and famous) tracking shot through the Copacabana as Henry brings Karen there for a date… it is so smooth and so effortless and subliminally it’s Henry that’s doing it, not Martin. Or the snappy editing of scenes like Henry getting in the car, popping a pill and saying quickly: “Now take me to jail.” (Hard cut.)

There’s not a thing about this movie I don’t love. Every actor is a treat to watch, Liotta most of all. Karen and Henry’s relationship, which is so fucked up by the end, is so charming to watch nonetheless. That scene of her yelling at him on the street after he stands her up for their double date is priceless. Him laughing and loving it, her furious but pulled in by his gravity. Watching her change, watching that grin creep up the side of mouth: so good.

As cool and charming as the whole thing is, Scorsese succeeds in not over-glorifying the life. You are as disgusted as you are entranced by Joe Pesci. Even DeNiro’s quickness to brutality is more frightening than his sweetheart charisma is attracting. That’s a difficult balance to strike; I felt like Scorsese lost that battle in Wolf of Wall Street for example, and the balance tipped from midway to moral judgement to all the way to full glory. In Goodfellas the balance is perfect. You are seduced by the cool, but you are sickened by the realities. And that’s the hardest and most important thing to accomplish in an American gangster movie. You have to hit that balance with the accuracy of a tuning fork. And god, does this movie succeed.

You know you want to re-watch Goodfellas. You should do it tonight.

Ponyo

November 18, San Francisco: Though it was released well into my adulthood, I’ve enjoyed (and re-enjoyed) Ponyo with all the enthusiasm of a child in its target age group. The first time Jill and I watched it, we watched it a second time in the same sitting. It’s one of the few films that we actually bought the DVD for.

Why is that? Well, you start with a base foundational layer of the myth of the little mermaid. But then you cook it in the kitchen of the master chef Miyazaki. You add in the incredible animation, believable yet fantastic, particularly from a child’s eye. And then you layer in a moral ambiguity absent from most American cartoon narratives. This last is key. There is no villain in Ponyo. There is the father, who is anti-human and a demanding father, but for whom, by the end of the film, we are also affectionate.

Another magical piece about Ponyo is the way in which the adult world around the kids adapts so easily to their reality. Five year olds going on grand adventures, unchallenged by the adults they meet along the way. Reality enhanced with a dash of magic and never questioned. Soskei’s mother doesn’t really bat an eye when a lost little girl shows up at their house (nor later when she agrees to take her on as another child to raise).

But why Ponyo over other Miyazaki? Above all else, Jill and I love Ponyo because Ponyo herself is so heart-meltingly cute. Her delight and exclamations over things in the human world just make you giggle. Her favorite thing in the world is ham and anytime it’s served to her she shouts “HAAAAAAAAAAM!” It’s ridiculously cute.

Whether or not you love ham, you will probably love little Ponyo.

Die Hard

October 6, Flying from New York to San Francisco: I forgot all about Die Hard in the first couple of rounds of adding titles to the Thirty-Three Project. I’ve never claimed it to be one of my favorite movies. It falls outside the realm of the film school classics (Fellini, Coppola, Godard, etc). But it struck me in a flash: one cannot watch the best movies of all time and not watch Die Hard.

Everything about this movie is perfect. It’s a Christmas movie, after all! Bruce Willis is incredible as the character known as Bruce Willis (in all his subsequent films). Alan Rickman, the same. And Los Angeles in the 1980s is resplendent in its furtive cocaine use, Japanese businessmen, and fast-talking limo drivers.

Beyond a veneer though, this is such an excellent 1980s film because its villains are so perfectly cynical. “You want money? What kind of terrorists are you?” asks the doomed Japanese executive. Rickman’s “Hans Gruber” is a known German terrorist, but here he’s all about the money. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Terrorism in Die Hard throws ideology out the window in favor of a complex heist. And Gruber plays everyone’s expectations of the ideologue perfectly (“Asian Dawn? Who’s that?” “I read about them in TIME Magazine.”) Such an eighties story.

Most of all, though, it’s just such a fun and well-written action movie. There are no forced lines— even a solid gold catch-phrase like “Yippee Kay Yay motherfucker” makes perfect sense in the story. You buy McClain and you buy the villains and the asshole FBI agents. And you love the body with the sweatshirt that reads: “Now I have a machine gun Ho Ho Ho”.

Go ahead and rent yourself Die Hard. Pop some popcorn, crack open an American beer, and lean back in your recliner. Yippe Kay Yay Motherfucker.

The Manchurian Candidate

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

October 5, New York: When Friendster rolled around and we all had to tally up our favorite books and music and movies, I crafted my list of films with the utmost care. One would have to with a degree in filmmaking. That list included an odd addition: The Manchurian Candidate, a 1960s psychological thriller about mind control and political assassination.

I have often called this my favorite film. Above even Casablanca. Why is that? I suspect I was attracted by its obscurity, but re-watching it today was a test to see if there was some secret genius in my choice, long-forgotten.

The answer is no. It’s a fascinating movie, but it’s no masterpiece. The editing is superb— particularly in the various dream sequences, mixing up the Ladies’ Hydrangea Society and the Manchurian Pavlov Institute in innumerable formats. It’s a great concept, though perhaps giving fancifully a little much credit to the power of brain-washing. And the camerawork at times is inspired— urgent and inventive— but then there are times where you want to shout at the DP to find the right focus. Frank Sinatra’s face NOT HIS EPAULETTE!

Sinatra’s in this movie and so is Janet Leigh, but their first scene is so stilted and neither of them ever really sings after that. (Leigh gets a clever line in with a deadpan “I was one of the original Chinese railroad workers who built this track.”) The real star here is Angela Lansbury, who plays the secret power wife behind the McCarthy-inspired Senator to the hilt. She’s so good at being evil.

I like the movie just fine, but it’s a good example of why we’re reevaluating the canon. Certainly fantastic, but I don’t know about “favorite”.

I had to buy a DVD of the Manchurian Candidate from Amazon, which I offer now as an option to you.

Style Wars

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 24, Flying from LGA to ORD: The scene is 1982 New York City, and this super-sincere film crew is out by the subway tracks shooting shot after shot of amazingly painted trains on 16mm film. That film becomes Style Wars and it is the most awesome portrait of early graffiti, breaking, and rapping you’ve ever seen. Oh sure, you might have seen Beat Street or Wild Style (or, forgivably, Crush Groove), but this, my friend, this is the source text.

They’re all there: From Seen to Skeme. Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew. White kids, black kids, Latino kids— it’s a real all-city movement. And the cops are there too (including the guy who states flatly: “Is it art? I don’t know, I’m not an art critic. But I can sure as hell tell you, that’s a crime.”) The great soundbite that begins the Black Star song “Respiration” is here in all its filmed glory: a super young and skinny Skeme talking about bombing a train. And the art on that train is amazing. What geniuses, these kids!

It’s a lot of fun to re-watch this movie. There’s just so much great stuff here. This was the first time I’d watched Style Wars as a New York resident and the part that newly resonated with me was the brief series of soundbites from New Yorkers complaining about the graffiti in the trains. And frankly, I agree. It looks disgusting in there! It’s easy to imagine not ever understanding this movement as a New Yorker— when would you ever see whole cars if you lived in Manhattan? All you’d really see would be tags upon tags upon tags in the hot metal tube you had to cram into on your way to work.

Dig into the hip hop creation story with a little Style Wars. Available from your friendly neighborhood Internet superstore.

Ken Burns’ Civil War

September 13, SFO-JFK: What do I remember about Ken Burns’ Civil War? I watched it young, probably bit by bit on PBS. Eventually I convinced my parents to buy the VHS set— that bread box brick of a dozen cassettes. It was not the best investment; I watched it through once. But it was so visually impressive, sitting their in the tape library! It’s the number of VHS cassettes that sticks out most prominently in my memory. Christ, it was long. You kept feeding those things into the VCR one after another in a never-ending cycle.

How delighted I was to find the whole thing on Netflix and moreso to find it was only nine episodes. Perhaps my memory of its length had been distorted by time? Nope. That was correct. Each episode was longer than an hour, the first the length of a feature film. I dove right in.

I love the way the series begins: with an anecdote of a Virginia home-owner who claims “the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor”. It’s one of countless ways in which sprawling over so many hours Ken Burns brings the details of the Civil War to the forefront to make it more accessible and human.

As a documentary filmmaker, I felt there was always a smirking joke in the style of this series. That you could always slow pan across a couple of still shots and, with a wink, call it your Ken Burns sequence. But I’d originally watched this series long before I ever produced a frame of documentary, and today, with a professional’s eye, I found myself bowled over and impressed. The challenge of telling a story of epic length about long-ago history is the scant visual materials you have to work with. Burns essentially has a pile of photographs, a half dozen backbone interviews, and a handful of contemporary shots that affected the mood of long ago. There was no Zapruder film of the Battle of Gettysburg and impressively, Burns didn’t stoop to reenactments.

Ken Burns’ Civil War is unique in that it doesn’t present itself like a film. It’s actually more akin to a book. A big hefty doorstop of a tome. It uses the same techniques of detail and anecdote and the pace moves slowly, each beat breathing. After a battle, when the sun has set, Burns will give you a solid thirty second soundtrack of campfire and crickets over the moon in the dark night sky. (Ironically, this shot feels almost identical to the one used so frequently in Sherman’s March.) Burns tells the story about the great men, Lincoln and Lee and Grant and Davis, and meanwhile he builds narratives around on-the-ground characters like a Maine private who fought through the whole of the war.

I’m happy as hell I rewatched this series. It’s the sort of thing that feels unnecessary to repeat a viewing of— yeah, yeah, I know all about the civil war and I know what a Ken Burns movie looks like. But I’d never fully appreciated what a masterpiece this is.

Thankfully, modern technology now means you don’t need to buy a dozen VHS cassettes. Netflix will do you just right in your search for Ken Burns’ Civil War.

Magnolia

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 9, San Francisco: I arrived to film school with every ambition of being the next great writer-director. It seemed we all wanted that and this was around the time that that sort of filmmaking was back in fashion. Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and yes, P.T. Anderson were all crowned the new auteurs, just as we film students were learning the meaning of the word. After Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, some studio gave P.T. a seemingly endless budget (unlike Hard Eight) and creative control (unlike Boogie Nights) and he set forth to make a masterpiece. That film is Magnolia.

Magnolia weaves together an ensemble of interconnected characters through a pattern of chance and coincidence. It’s beautifully filmed— sumptuous symmetrical shots and long, complicated Steadicam follows. And this cast, oh these actors: Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, and more. But man oh man, Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-help guru who leads the “Seduce and Destroy” seminar about “taming the cunt”? He’s incredible.

The movie gives these actors a chance to really show off. In fact, it delights in the extremes of their performances. There is much screaming, much weeping; there would be gnashing of teeth if that sort of thing had been de rigeur in the San Fernando Valley of the 1990s. Magnolia revels in weaving profanity throughout the dialogue almost with the glee of an HBO series shaking its fist at traditional TV. More casual ‘fucks’ and ‘fuckings’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘cocks’ and ‘cunts’ than you can be bothered to count.

I loved this movie when I saw it. Loved it. It was a triumph of the craft and here was P.T. Anderson showing himself as a master. And I, as a film student, couldn’t help telling anyone and everyone how much I loved this film and thought P.T. Anderson was a genius. Now that was a man to aspire to be. (Did I mention he was dating Fiona Apple at the time?)

Watching Magnolia today, it feels rather overwrought. The whole movie is about showing off. Anderson is showing off. The actors are showing off. The script is showing off. The whole Aimee Mann soundtrack is showing off. You are so aware this is a film and that these are actors angling for awards and when Philip Seymour Hoffman says, “I know I sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get in touch with the long lost son. but this is that scene…” well, it does sound kind of ridiculous and definitely sounds like just a scene in a movie.

This is the thing about the film that is so odd to me, watching it now. Anderson bookends the narrative with these anecdotes about one in a million coincidences, and then the narrator (Ricky Jay, who is awesome, by the way) argues at the tail end of the film that though these stories may seem too hard to believe, like they were just convenient for the sake of a movie, they in fact happen all the time. It is essentially an exhortation to believe the film you’ve just watched, to believe that such a quilt of chance could be woven in real life, in the real lives of these characters. Yet this does a better job of reminding the viewer they are watching a film than of suspending disbelief. Maybe this is Anderson’s point. Maybe he doesn’t want you to forget, once you hit rewind on your Oscar screening tape, that this was a film— with a cast and a script and well, a director.

Magnolia is a good film. I wouldn’t walk around calling it my favorite film anymore, but it is a damn fine piece of filmmaking and the performances are really quite impressive. Worth a watch, but with the caveat that sometimes Icarus flies too high.

No, really. Watch Magnolia.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 5, New York: For much of my teens and twenties all I wanted from romance was a Holly Golightly: a beautiful, brilliant, tortured girl who liked a taste of the sauce. Or, given that a romance with a Holly Golightly could never last, I’d settle for a series of these. This had predictably terrible consequences. But, man, I loved this movie and I loved the women who identified with it, dark blues and mean reds and all. Despite the constant jarring realization that Paul Varjack was also Hannibal from the A-Team (“I love it when a plan comes together.”) I thought this movie was one of the best of all time. I’ve probably watched it dozens of times. The young writer, struggling in New York. The beautiful, young tortured girl he loves. The dizzying ups and downs of spending an entire day drunk together. These were themes I was busy cultivating in my own life.

The book, more dark and ending with them apart, I found endlessly more believable. Of course they wouldn’t end up together and of course no one ever gets to deliver that heartfelt “I’m so indignantly correct.” speech he gives her in the cab at the end of the movie. But the book’s reality also added to the story’s danger; realism made it seem more attainable.

In this viewing I realized the only true hero in this tale is poor Cat. Holly and Paul hurt each other constantly, none of them is without blame. Holly cuts a memorable figure but seems exhausting. Paul Varjack is himself pretty terrible: judging, uneven of temperament and unclear in his intentions. Oh, how shocked he is to find that the second he comes on strong, Holly pushes him away. Duh, buddy, you’ve been watching this pattern for weeks now. And oof, how unwatchable is that terribly racist Mickey Rooney performance. But Cat? Lovable, party-loving Cat is the real hero of this film.

Relive your own tortured twenties relationships with a Breakfast at Tiffany’s viewing party.

This Is Spinal Tap

August 31, New York: The funny thing about Spinal Tap is how great the music is. Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics are rotten. But man they are playing some really fantastic rock and roll. Also, they are hilarious. Christopher Guest as Nigel gives the best dim-witted rocker the world has ever seen. Yet his face every time he plays a solo, that genuine excitement, the ‘holy crap I’m doing this, I’m really doing this’ makes you love him.

Coming from the video production generation, I’m always impressed to see improvisation shot on film. You have to have enormous confidence in your cast to roll expensive, expensive film on a couple of actors goofing around. And here, it works wonderfully. Left to his own devices, Christopher Guest will deliver line after line after line of pure gold.

The songs, though puerile, are so catchy. I woke up the next morning with “Sex Farm” stuck in my head. I even, at one point, bought the Spinal Tap CD and listened to it… as music. But the film is really the gem. I could watch this movie a hundred more times in my life. And I probably will.

Buy Spinal Tap and brace yourself from some Heavy (heavy) duty (duty) heavy duty, rock and roll.