Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Stan Brakhage and the Current Cinema

Looking back on the year through November and cataloging my trips to the theater in DC, it has become clear to me that I see a lot of movies. While I could debate the linguistic nuances between watching and seeing, allow me to go ahead and attempt to clarify that I don't watch movies, dvd's, or videos, I see them. Preferably in the theater, and preferably alone. I don't think that I am drawn to the theater for the mere mass-media consumption that seems so rampant these days. Instead, I go to partake in the actual cinematic experience. This fascination might originate from the fact that, for some reason, I feel like this tradition might die within our lifetime as we watch more and more, shorter and shorter films on increasingly shrinking screens.

While I agree with David Lynch, my attraction to movie-going could also come from the fact that I am a victim of collateral damage, seeing that my mother is hugely involved in film at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, and now also might I add, honorary chair of the Lone Star International Film Festival. Since taking on the position while I was in still in high school, she occasionally strongly recommended that I come see films she screened on the weekends. At first I blew them off and did not give them adequate attention. But eventually, as I matured a little bit, I began to appreciate them.

Yet, as strong of influences as David Lynch and my mother might be in my life, perhaps my obsession with movies is not really an obsession at all. Maybe its root actually lies somewhere nearer to the idea that there is something incredibly meditative/vegetative about the darkness of a theater and its all encompassing glow.

During my first few semesters at Middlebury I religiously attended the Hirschfield film series' free screenings on Saturday afternoons. Most of the time I was nursing a pretty serious hangover and the dark and cool auditorium provided the best place to lie low and avoid the exploits of the previous evening. Occasionally a film shown would attract a large crowd, but most of the time it was me amidst a smattering of a elderly couples from throughout Addison County, Vermont, and senior film students, who were most likely required to be there for a class. What was great about seeing films in this environment was that I came to realize the Zevonesque, splendid isolation of the viewing experience. Free of cinematic social obligation, I could let the film wash over me as I put up little resistance in my convalescence (detox?). I didn't have to make a value judgment on whether or not I "liked" it. I eventually learned that it is in this space that film works on you like no other medium. It moves you along with it and your interaction changes along with the reeling of the film.

One of my most vivid experiences in the Dana Auditorium was a tribute to Stan Brakhage, featuring Window Water Baby Moving and The Dog Star Man Cycle. At the screening I was the only person in the theater watching a filmmaker of whom I had not the slightest knowledge, only to have the film actively influence my mood. I distinctly remember feeling a sense of bewildered awe as I watched grainy images flash in front of me. The images dancing on the screen calmed me and excited me. Furthermore, the color and motion provided by the painterly manipulation of celluloid spoke to themes larger than film itself. The Brakhage pieces that I saw that day were the epitome of art-house; no sound, just a celebration of the medium of film and all of its capabilities to captivate the mind. It was in this moment that I knew there was an art more powerful at work in film than what Hollywood had offered me in the past.

Having said that
, I am glad that Hollywood-type movies still occupy a valuable place in my life and play a large role in my cultural literacy and entertainment. I voraciously consume them. The last thing I want to present myself as is am anti-Hollywood snob. On the contrary, I believe that Hollywood movies operate in a very constrained set of rules, and am impressed when filmmakers shine brightly and creatively within. The product of Hollywood tends not to be in the art-house cinematically, but occasionally, a movie comes along that, if you allow it the same openness as Stan Brakhage, will influence you in a powerful way and make you reconsider your previously held notions of understanding the world around you.

With that in mind, here is the list of movies I have seen so far this year. I have attempted to rate them with Brakhage in mind while at the same time acknowledging the fact that these are, for the most part, widely released motion pictures. I also realize that this is an entirely subjective rating system, so allow me to say that the best movies for me must capture aesthetic quality with the film and must also be well-written. For me the titles that get it either influence me on a profoundly aesthetic level or worked very well within the generally accepted constraint of their genre. The titles that I don't like are movies that either fall considerably short of their aesthetic potential, or are unaware products of their own genre.

Best of the Best:
In the Loop
Cold Souls
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
World's Greatest Dad

I am taking bets on which one of these will win some typ
e of award. My pick is In the Loop, which featured some of the most ribald British humor I have ever heard. It was also the most solidly written of the proliferate Iraq movies out there this year, all of which were quite good. Favorite quote: "Difficult, Difficult, Lemon, Difficult." In the vein of Iraq movies, The Hurt Locker went places that few war movies have gone before. Katherine Bigelow's cinematic style, influenced to some extent by Richard Serra, shines brightly. Also, World's Greatest Dad, though probably one of the darkest movies of the entire year, turned out to have the funniest and most redemptive ending: with a naked Robin Williams swan-diving into a swimming pool.

Good Show!
The Messenger
District 9
Pirate Radio
The International
Whatever Works
State of Play
Star Trek
Capitalism: A Love Story

These accomplished everything they set out to do and I will most certainly watch them repeatedly if/when they come to HBO. Of note here was The International. Though released a little too early to capitalize on the populist rage directed towards investment banks, it had the three g's that make any movie great, Guns, Goldman Sachs-inspired evil capitalists, and the Guggenheim. Also, I am a sucker for Michael Moore's unique talent of arranging archival footage in documentary form.

Missed the Mark:

The Men Who Stare at Goats
Public Enemies
Not Quite Hollywood
Food Inc.
The Hangover
I Love You Man
Big Fan

These movies had the potential, but, like Wes Anderson in the eyes of Steely Dan, they just didn't live up to what they could have been. Particularly disappointing to me was the stop-motion/claymation adaptation of Etgar Keret's series of short stories 9.99, which was a surprisingly weak follow-up to one of my favorite films ever, The Wrist Cutters. Food Inc. was a great documentary, I just can't get behind it after reading how Foer's "Eating Animals" sticks it to Michael Pollan.

Worst of the Worst

Terminator Salvation
Law Abiding Citizen
Year One
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Angels and Demons

As David Cross (an unfortunate cast-member in one of the movies on this list) infamously said of Incubus, I would rather "listen to the death rattle of my own child" than sit through one of these movies again. Well, maybe that is a bit too harsh. Nevertheless, whether it was the blatant anachronism that plagued Wolverine, the raspy voice and epileptic special effects of Terminator, or the phoned-in performances of some of my favorite actors in Year One, these movies fell flat.

Still on My List
Crazy Heart
The Cove
The Scenesters
The Road
I realize that it might be premature to make a"best of" list in early December, so I have listed a few movies that I have yet to see that I have high expectations for.


Gup said...

I went to 1 movie this year, Angels and Demons. And you put it in the correct category. The book obviously dominated the movie. For some reason I really dislike the movie's. Movies are too expensive these days, and when you pay tthe $10 or $12 bucks and the movie sucks.. I GET PISSED.

It is a dying vehicle and I should try and read more about some of the non mainstream movies and hit up the Modern here and there for better quality. T

Another thing I hate is Blockbuster. I went to Blockbuster about a month ago and asked if they had True Romance, they looked at me as if I was speaking a different language. Take a SHORT position on Blockbuster. They BLOW.

Keep writing homie.

James Gorski said...

I hear you man. Angels and Demons was the worst. Additionally, high cost is no good, but it's all relative. $10 at the movies for two and a half hours of entertainment is cheaper than two and a half hours in a bar or on a golf course. I recommend matinees or busting out a well-worn student-id. Also, it's always free at the Modern if you know Tina... Check out this link:

I have heard really good things about "Der Baader Meinhoff Komplex." Interesting sidenote, my boss was almost killed in one of their bombings when he was working in Germany...crazy.

I couldn't agree with you more on blockbuster. What a joke that place is. No matter what, something always goes wrong there. It is NEVER a seamless experience from entry to exit. I think we missed the short-wagon:
Their attempted merger with Circuit City was one of the most laughable pieces of financial news in 2008.
Netflix is the only game in town these days as far as I'm concerned. I also HIGHLY recommend the PS3 streaming option. It's like an unlimited TiVo. Though the movie selection is still limited, it is growing everyday.!