Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Dog Tulip

(My Dog Tulip/ New Yorker Films, 2009)
       The idleness of animation has only gained ground. Computer animation reigns, even when confronted with supposedly traditional animation. Tim Burton’s stop-motion films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox all made liberal use of computer graphics in order to make the jerkiness of stop-motion look slick. In the meantime, the films that don’t bother with physical materials and go straight for the digital jugular are outpacing everything else. The Pixar movies rake in millions of dollars each year, and always seem to gain attendant critical praise, as if kiddie guns were being held to the heads of those damned uptight critics. It is hand-drawn animation we can almost forget about. Aside from Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Bellville, and his recent The Illusionist, nary a hand-drawn animated feature can be named from the past decade. America, at least, has completely discredited such a practice.
            So now along comes My Dog Tulip, a goofy, potty-mouthed, introspective, whimsical film featuring an old British man jerking across the screen, in etchy color or mere pencil lines, and his Alsatian Bitch, Tulip, who barks, pants, and defecates likewise. In short, the film is every sentiment we have come to inspect from a Pixar film, minus politeness and pop. Because those two elements are nowhere to be found, the film can indulge in traditional animation with fewer constraints than any computer-generated blockbuster can indulge in its form. Because it indulges in all stages of animation, the film is an experience for all ages. It is the least pretentious film this year.
(My Dog Tulip/New Yorker Films, 2009)

            The story hardly needs describing, due to its simplicity and mootness, but here it goes: J.R Ackerley was an English journalist and essayist who worked for the BBC from the late 20’s until his death, in 1967. He ran in intellectual circles and was openly gay, but you will not find these facts in the film. They might explain, though, why he was an unmarried and reticent man in old age, yet filled to the brim with mental curiosity. He has searched, as he puts it, for the “ideal friend” his entire life, but can only find too many flaws in people. He is the ideal candidate for a dog owner, and so he finally acquires one from a lowly acquaintance and names her Tulip. Despite her hyperactivity, her anxiety, and his difficulty in training her, Tulip proves to be a joy, bringing enough bestial habits for Ackerley’s mind to bounce off of for the next fifteen years. Along the way, he learns how to properly scold his dog, how to introduce her to other people, and eventually, how to find her a mate. These situations bring out a host of characters, voiced by actors including the late Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini, and Brian Murray. Christopher Plummer provides the voice of Ackerley himself, his voice believably belonging to a man who gave up on humanity, finding each person in his life ridiculous in their manners. Tulip, on the other hand, is ridiculous because she wants to be, because it simply is her spirit. Ackerley, like any dog lover, prefers to live by the maxim that appears at the start of the film; “Unable to love each other, the English naturally turn to dogs.”
            The reason directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger bothered with this idea at all is because it is based on Ackerley’s memoir of the same name, a book beloved by dog aficionados. But aside from the people truly love dogs, the Fierlinger’s have made their film for people who truly love sloppiness. People who find imperfection a riot. Who find people a group worth looking at cynically, before laughing. Ackerley, as a man, is never someone to just nod along with. His ignorance of puppies and his shortsighted planning are only additional failures of human nature. But with their half-finished drawings, imprecise frames scribbles and doodles, the Fierlinger’s mean to guide us to the humor in our inherent incapacities. Their film stands athwart the march of modern animation towards some sort of master race of digital frames, an endless ironic loop of corrections.
But My Dog Tulip isn’t yelling “stop.” It will likely slink away, not making much money. All the lines that needed to be drawn were drawn, and that’s all real animators care about.
(My Dog Tulip/New Yorker Films, 2009)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blake Edwards; 1922-2010

(Director Blake Edwards)
     There is a scene that I saw at barely more than a glance, on a small screen, in a noisy and hurried setting, but will nonetheless always be lodged somewhere in my brain. It is a scene where two men, both disguised as gorillas, attempting a break in and robbery, circle either side of a wall, unaware of the other. They circle around in such unintended perfect continuity that when one reaches the left side of the wall, the other has just come around to the right. They stop in their tracks, because they hear each other and know someone is there. They continue creeping around the wall.
       This is a scene from The Pink Panther (1963). It is the first in what would become a series of eight films, including A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Each of these films featured Peter Sellers as the clumsy, daffy, highly incompetent inspector Clouseau, a frenchman with a weirdly fake accent and a penchant for getting himself in to catastrophic situations and having the dumb luck to get out of them. What better character for cinema? A walking (or tripping or falling) embodiment of anti-grace, an absurd man in a position to be taken seriously by society, especially high society. His Inspector Clouseau was an heir to Buster Keaton's accidental heroes, except he inverted even them; the films were additions to a long line of a certain folly-of-man satire one can trace back to Don Quixote. 
     But all this can be largely credited to the film's director, Blake Edwards. He understood the athleticism, and non-athleticism, of the moving image better than most comedy directors. He knew when stretch out a conversation until it was funny, when to stretch out a slapstick gag until it was funny, and when to throw in a subtle bit of humor that he didn't much care if we comprehended. His films--aside from The Pink Panther series, there are more than thirty, not all of them comedies-- epitomized unpretentious, restrained, yet utterly fearless moving image humor.
    Blake Edwards died yesterday in Santa Monica California. He was 88 years old.
    For more complete obituaries, see:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Black Swan

(Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

         Ever since Roman Polanski made Repulsion (1965) and Ingmar Bergman made Persona (1966), the theme of Women in Anguish has been slathered across the ensuing decades in films such as 3 Women (1977) and Mulholland Drive (2001). But even Repulsion and Persona had their predecessors; The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for instance, is one of the earliest, and perhaps the greatest, film about the persecution of a misunderstood female. Cinema’s casual obsession with the beauty and vulnerability of the female figure has been, by degrees, compassionate, feminist, trashy and exploitative. But the theme didn’t turn truly cynical until the 60’s came along, and ever since then, it has been a steady progression of Women in Really Hot Anguish.
            Now we are faced with Black Swan, a film that perfectly intersects the psycho-sexual gore politics of Repulsion with the neurotic expressionism of any Bergman film. While the film is, arguably, pure trash, it is also visually addictive and outrageous enough to verge on either black comedy or self-parody.
            The films stars Natalie Portman, who ends up being the most confounding part of the story. This is not because we don’t expect the gradual psychosis her character descends in to as she works herself to the brink trying to be the perfect Swan Queen in Swan Lake. It is not because we don’t know which of her violent and sexual fantasies are real and which are hallucinations (who cares). It has something to do with Portman’s natural demeanor. She has always been a female equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio; a woman-child, somewhat clueless, always trying a little too hard. She is both irritating and cute, nothing more. This works to the advantage of the story after a certain point. When we first meet her character, Nina, she is shy, helpless, and unwilling to stand up for herself. We keep waiting for her to tell her sleazy ballet choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to get lost, but she never does. We keep wanting her to stop apologizing and show some pride, but she is incapable of it. Yet just when it looks like we might be stuck with this infuriating character for the rest of the film, along comes Lily, played by a spunky, outstanding Mila Kunis. As Nina gets to know this seasoned ballerina from San Francisco, we watch her loosen up a little. She starts smoking cigarettes, dropping ecstasy and making out with strangers; she tells off her unbearable mother (Barbara Hershey). And much more. It is largely thanks to Kunis that these scenes carry any weight. She has grasped the feel of this movie far better than Portman, and besides, her character is more likable. She has a sense of humor and a wicked smile. Kunis is a far more subtle physical actress than Portman is, and she manages to communicate a sense of the demonic without straining herself. Eventually, our sympathies go to Nina, as she hysterically crams her stuffed animals down the garbage shoot and slams the door on her mother. But only because we know Lily is right around the corner.
(Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

            Like everything else in the film, Kunis’ gifts are both a problem and a saving grace. Nina is meant to be the pure one and Kunis is meant to be her menacing rival . Or is she? Is Lily merely a manifestation of Nina’s dark side? The answer is yes in both cases, giving us a confused impression that resonates everywhere else in the film. The parallels between the story of Swan Lake and the story of the film are clunky and obvious. Yet the way director Darren Aronofsky lets the visual rhythms flow is so insistent that all is almost forgiven. At the same time, Aronofsky has always been more of a music video director than a filmmaker; his jittery tracking shots and penchant for shrill horror-movie sound effects would drag the film to an amateur level if it weren’t for the director of photography, Matthew Libatique. Libatique has worked with Aronofsky twice before, and seems to have mastered ways of turning the director’s kitschy leanings in to off-kilter compositions that feel like actual nightmares. His camera choreography of the dance sequences, including several tense training sessions, communicate a palpable sense of spinning around on stage, not knowing when or how you’re going to fumble. But even his camerawork can’t make us care about our silly protagonist. Black Swan is a chain of contradictions and compensations. It is a deliberately incoherent film that we find it increasingly easy to surrender to.
            The real reason we surrender is simple and crude. Girls stabbing each other with glass, having random sex, suffering nervous breakdowns. It is one of cinemas most pornographic and cynical triumphs that these things are a joy to watch. Perhaps Bergman and Polanski wouldn’t care for Black Swan, but they’d see their own methods in it. Dreyer might be secretly turned on, like the rest of the crowd. Bring on the bombshells. 
(Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan/ Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Left Foot, Right Foot

(Lars Rudolph and Peter Fitz in Werckmeister Harmonies/ 13 Productions)

      Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) stands out, among other reasons, for its monolithic sense of human activity. People eat, drink, wash dishes, chop wood, sleep and sit, staring at nothing; all unusual sights in film. Bela Tarr takes his strange sense of natural existence to its most astonishing length in a scene involving two men, Janos (Lars Rudolph) and Gyuri (Peter Fitz). The scene is in Black and White, like the rest of the film.
The two men leave the house of Gyuri, a self appointed town official, and start walking down an empty dirt road in the frosty and flat village that is the film’s setting. The sky should be gray, but instead it is white. Both men wear coats and walk side by side as they trade words about a petition Gyuri means to convince certain villagers to sign. Though both are in focus, Janos is in the foreground. He looks up and down, over and under with his bug-eyes that seek fascination in all sights. Gyuri is in the background, his face in a constant frown, his hand on his black bowler hat. Janos mentions the circus that has come to town, and the whale that is the centerpiece of the circus. He tells Gyuri that he must see it to see the wonders of God’s creation. Gyuri replies in a brusque manner first they have to deal with the list. They fall silent and walk. We have seen Janos walk along roads repeatedly in this film; but never have we seen a walk like this. Janos falls slightly behind Gyuri, who walks with a mechanical limp and an unchanging posture. Janos’ unkempt hair blows in the wind and flakes of snow, or debris, that dance around the frame. Janos stares ahead, his teeth clenched, then down at the ground. They pass by what looks like the same stone building over and over. We finally fall behind them and circle around to their backs. They stop when they meet two more wandering villagers, ranting to Gyuri about the violence in town, the circus and the uncertainty of the world. Janos offers to get Gyuri lunch and leaves. Gyuri impatiently informs the men that he has a list to show them. He removes it from his coat.
This shot was emulated by Gus Van Sant for his film Gerry, with slight variations, two years after Werckmeister Harmonies. Van Sant may have thought he was doing Tarr one better by making his actors walk even longer. But Tarr’s walk refuses to suffer in comparison. He is the ideal experiential filmmaker, and shots like this one are ideally experienced rather than comprehended. His walk follows the same rule as any in that it has a start point and an end point. But Tarr manages to make the viewer feel as if they are accompanying the two men on some out-of-body level, something that we can’t possibly experience in an actual walk. He never flinches from the labor, the deliberateness of people moving. As for us, he has us simply glide. The monotony of other’s becomes our trance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


(Marwencol/ Open Face)

           Conceivably, those of us who kept a distance from videogames and didn’t crave the unceasing attention of others in our childhoods would like to go back to that time now and then. We could build our fortresses in our mother’s gardens, fill them with soldiers, and make up stories in which they fight each other. This is exactly what Mark Hogancamp reminds us of, as he crouches on his lawn and moves around the doll soldier figures that occupy his miniature world, called Marwencol. Unfortunately, his stage of life is not childhood—it’s somewhere in his forties—and his reasons for building his imaginary town are rather more scarred than a child’s reasons.
(Marwencol/ Open Face)

            Hogancamp’s project only began after his mind was erased. An alcoholic with a talent for illustration, he had been married, then divorced, and only barely held down a job at local diner in Kingston, New York before being beaten into a coma one night outside a bar. He lay unconscious for nine days before waking up, but with no recollection of his past. He re-learned how to walk, read, write and speak, although his body movements remained somewhat jerky and his speech labored and grammatically dubious. What is most remarkable about Hogamcamp’s misfortune is that it has, in fact, saved his life. He no longer feels any desire to drink. His emotions are muted, his expressive abilities similar to an autistic person’s. All that is fully intact—stronger?—is his imagination. Forgoing conventional therapy, he sets about building his World War II-era town of American soldiers versus German bullies, available bombshell women (barbies), and a diner that acts as a central location to the wandering narrative he improvises. Each of the characters in Marwencol are figures of Hogancamp’s actual acquaintances; his boss, a neighbor he has a crush on, his mother, his roommate. A photographer who takes an interest in the project is eventually added as a character, as is this film’s director, Jeff Malmberg. Hogancamp’s creation is character-driven, gruesome, devoid of political correctness, and aware of genre conventions and pop-culture in a distant, passive way. It is, as Malmberg’s camera crouches with Hogancamp to re-position another figure, a thrilling place to be. Hogancamp manages to photograph every happening in the town, but keeps all the photographs stored away in boxes. Knowing what we do about modern culture, we know they will not be kept in those boxes for long. The film is evidence of their exposure.
(Mark Hogancamp in Marwencol/Open Face)

            But it is not cruel evidence. It has been evident throughout documentary history that every documentary about a person has used its subject to a great degree, and its release means the subject is exploited. But Malmberg’s film is toned-back and fixated; it is a portrait that enhances the mystery of Mark Hogancamp. It does not, like so many misbegotten works of non-fiction, explain him away and throw him on a screen. We only learn the basic facts about Hogancamp’s past life; there is no need for the probing details. Hogancamp sometimes seems to recall moments from his past, but he could be making them up as he goes along. He sometimes seems to be reminding himself to make a distinction between the characters in his town and the real people he knows. A psychologist would have a field day with this behavior, but Malmberg, correctly, does not. He is also correct to shoot Hogancamp against highly literal, non-emotive backgrounds; Hogancamp is seen walking down the main road near his home in many shots, dragging along a toy truck containing his soldiers, surrounded by evergreen trees and hills.  Otherwise, he might be walking around downtown Kingston, near the sight of his beating. The town looks desolate and rigid, like Marwencol. The people who are interviewed, or who interact with Hogancamp, are shown in sparse clips and are treated as exactly what they are; amused bystanders. Even when Hogancamp goes to New York City, for a reluctant show of his photographs, he is shown as an awkward figure in a hushed and hurried model of city. As one interview subject notes, Hogancamp’s creation contains no irony in its use of dolls. Malmberg’s camera gazes at actual society in the same way. 
            The few artistic flourishes Malmberg does allow himself are hit-or-miss. A stop motion recreation of a scene in the town is sloppy, random and delightful; a bloody fight scene staged to marching-band war music we could have done without. But Malmberg’s film is that rare brave and weird achievement that does not sensationalize the minor derangement of its subject, lectures the viewer on nothing and creates a pedastel for nobody. In the end, we may have seen a true existential film, but not a bleak one. Marwencol is spirited, playful and almost as ignorant as Mark Hogancamp is of modern trends and commentary. It is a film the Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer might have shot if he were a documentarian. But the childlike urges and the pent-up rage of a damaged man make Malmberg's film something even more aberrant. When Hogancamp proclaims that he wants to live in Marwencol all the time, we almost want to join him, as neighbors.
(Marwencol/Open Face)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Questions

December brings to mind images of snowfall, kitschy Christmas lights, tree lighting ceremonies in cities all over the world, mascots of reindeer and Santa Claus, scary fat men with beards, merchandise, glittering merchandise, wrapped merchandise…and a batch of watchable films. This is, typically speaking the time of year when all the serious films come out, and so The Collector will be taking films a little more seriously than we already do this month. This will be the month of reviews, so expect almost nothing but.
The state of cinema as we find it by this holiday season is a highly confused one. I am not talking about movies being bad. Most movies, according to most filmgoers, have always been bad. I mean confused in that we have never been more uncertain how valuable films are right now. This is because many films barely look like films; is Avatar even a movie? Is Saw 3D? Is Harry Potter? To my mind, no; these are interactive spectacles, not films. They are the Choose Your Own Adventure of interactive media. On the other hand, that which is film; Winter’s Bone, Enter the Void, Boxing Gym, Catfish. These are interesting films, but do they provide a clear alternative to these anti-cinema technical spectacles? Again, I don’t think so, because several of them (Enter the Void, Catfish) are only barely movies, communicating a world where gadgets and alternate realities dominate us, just as they dominate the movies themselves. So Enter the Void is a film built on explosions of color and the floating, ghostly motion of a spirit. Catfish is built on casual narcissism and the creepy digital grain of Facebook. Both these films are boldly experimental, but in their conceptions, even they verge close to interactive art rather than film. Enter the Void at times feels like a demented videogame while Catfish feels like…well, Facebook and digital cameras. Both exemplify directors trying to find a way to bend the formulas of Internet and videogame imagery (loosely speaking) in to cinema. It’s fascinating to watch but how far is it, really, from wearing plastic 3-D glasses?
So to my mind, only films such as Winter’s Bone, Boxing Gym and a few others really provide a cling of formal cinema this year. But I hold out hope for this month. And so we roll in to the end of the year, the first full year of existence for this lonely blog...