Sunday, November 30, 2008

Santa Fe Film Festival 2009: Here. I. Come.

hello imagined community,

I hope you'll stay with me in this next week or so as I cover the Santa Fe Film Festival on a blog I made for their website. It should be fun if completely exhausting. I'm looking to put up at least preliminary thoughts on the Santa Fe blog as the week goes by, but I imagine the project will spill over to post-festival recaps. I'll also probably reserve some of the more developed thinking for What Is This Light, so stay tuned regardless. Right now, my festival schedule includes:

The Class--Laurent Cantet
Che: The Argentine and Che: Guerilla--Stephen Soderbergh
Everlasting Moments--Jan Troell
Ciao--Yen Tan
Still Life--Mahesh Pailoor
An Unlikely Weapon--Susan Morgan Cooper
Squeezebox!--Steven Saporito
Persian Portraits--Experimental Shorts from Tehran
Doubt--John Patrick Shanley
Em--Tony Barbieri
Kassim the Dream--Kief Davidson
and also a few series of animated shorts and more experimental short material too.

If anyone cares too look at the list of films picked for the 2008 SFFF and give me their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about which ones I can't miss (or who I should try and interview), that would be tremendous. I can't say I'll listen but there's a lot here and obviously I want to miss the least amount of amazing stuff.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

You Really Hurt Me, "Synechdoche, New York": Continued

I knew What Is This Light couldn't be done with this movie. Thankfully, my friend Evan Cook chimed in on the Synechdoche, New York post and put some new ideas out there so I tossed some other ideas back. Hope you'll find it takes the original post a step or two or seven further.

Evan writes:

“While this may have something to do with the fact that I saw it alone on a Monday as opposed to a Sunday night—a film far less polymorphous than Synecdoche could have easily changed its connotation in twenty-four hours—I still think you missed it.
I do think you got closer than Manohla did though.

You’re right; Synecdoche is not a film that is, “a call to life.” That’s too easy. It isn’t a, “wise up, get-out-of-bed Eeyore, and go see all that beauty that’s out there,” kind of affair. Yet it’s also not the antithesis, either. It’s a film that—by bestowing us with the perspective of a hero who has either forever lost or never had one—champions equilibrium. A film that, through its defiance of it, begs us to find a balance between family and work, self and community, love and lust, sycosis and health, humor and psychosis and most visibly art and life.

Caden is, as so many of us become in our darkest moments (when we let one thought, person, or project get the better of us), a man without ballast. Living exclusively in the tiny, extreme moments of his life when the pendulum of time has frozen at the apex of its respective side, and then proceeding to ignore the happenings that occur along the way to its next pause, he loses everything he loves. Years pass by him (and eventually us) without notice. He jumps from one honed obsession to the next, sitting shiva for one corner of his life while everything else in the room suffers.

Take the beginning. We meet Caden when he is already steadily on an uneven keel. His perseverating over his staging of Death of a Salesman has led him to where we first encounter him: alone in a family. Although we never see it, we can presume that Caden’s unbiased focus on his work has led to the host of other problems we see pop-up into his life like the pustules and other diseases he “falls” victim to, namely his failing marriage. While his art is his overarching obsession throughout the film, an addiction that worsens as it goes on; at the film’s start he still has a chance at recovery. Adele may be well down the path to leaving him, but Olive is still there, he has the choice to fight for her. Instead, when Adele tells him she’s going to go to Berlin alone (and I’m paraphrasing here cause I don’t quite remember which he jumps into first) he cycles through fixating on treatment, other women and eventually his gesamtkunstwerk, only turning his obsession to Olive when it screams at him across the ocean through a magazine. Even then, as opposed to pursuing a balance, he (more than once) abandons his work and his new family to fly across the world to immerse his focus completely. And just like every time before and each time after, when Caden neglects one thing for another, he is punished by what he ignores.

And this is why he’s punished—not because life is wholly unmitigating, or because it’s courageously beautiful if you just take the time to look—both of which can seem true sometimes—but because life requires symmetry. Lame metaphor alert—look at it as if “life” were a patient with renal failure and “art” was a dialysis machine (stay with me now…). Without art, life is sick, unable to distill the quotidian toxins. Without life, art is just a machine, an object that has the potential to save but isn’t doing so. Only when they’re entwined, transfusing one another, are they alive. A synecdoche fails without the part that represents the whole—a car is not a car without its “wheels”—and without the whole to represent the part, it is just that: just a part.

I don’t know… Maybe you’re not evaluating what he’s trying to say at all… Maybe you’re just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that “get out of bed” emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you’ll be okay is exactly there—in bed…”

Martha Responds:

I think the problem I have with Dargis' reading of the film is fundamentally the same problem I have with your reading of it. Let me try and shake this thing out: Dargis says that Synechdoche is a call to life by way of Caden so pitifully rejecting it. Even if I agreed with this argument about the film (and my post I hope clearly indicates that I think Caden does indeed engage in life) well I still would take issue with the power and clarity of the film's "call to life" and I would take issue with it for, surprisingly, the same reason I can't feel this movie the way you did.

You say the film is a call to equilibrium by way of Caden living in the extremes. And I like this idea because, though I never thought Caden was pure victim and though I realize his serious inability to multi-task and though I saw his internal inertia building building building until he's again wound up in tragedy, you really pushed forward the idea that Caden Cotard is an agent in his own implosion. So, really, a sincere thanks; I feel like the next time I see this thing (geez, will I be able to swallow and stomach it another time?) I'll be much better queued into Caden's willful negligence of everything outside of the one thing he's currently, passionately, destructively obsessed with.

But, like I said at the start, I see a similarity between your and Dargis' reading that (I think?) explains both of your love of this movie as well as the fact that I sincerely respect it but can't 'love' it. For quite different reasons, you and Dargis find this movie to be a call to something (life, a better life in equilibrium) by way of Caden's inability to do just that, but I'm over here finding it extremely difficult to learn from negative examples. I do horribly with it and I always have. I didn't include this idea in my original post but I tried to hint at it when I said, I really can't feel this movie as a call to life...Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard is subjected. For this same reason, I can't feel this movie as a call to equilibrium either. I choose that subjective wording carefully because I really do think this springs right from my taste, right from the way I can and can't learn something. And wow, Evan, now we're here swimming in the molten core of criticism--subjectivity! opinions! what!?!?! But really, what might work on others has a history of failing on me. When I see depression on screen, I hardly ever think Martha, Note To Self: Don't Be Depressed! And when I see people make mistakes on screen, I think That Is Tragedy or That Is Misery or That Is Trouble, never I Will Do Better. And I know I'm rendering a pretty unconscious interpretive process painfully literal with these trite little phrases, but there is something to this; At one point you say "Maybe you're just saying that Kauffman attempts to give us that 'get out of bed' emotion and just fails to do so properly because you walk out of the movie feeling like the only place you'll be okay is exactly there—in bed…" But, I hope it's clear by now, I don't think it failed at its message because I don't see its message as a kind of leading by negative example the way you and Dargis do. I don't feel these types of calls to other life-styles. I think this film succeeded! (Hugely! Impressively! Memorably!) as a valuable meditation on human mis-steps and mis-prioritization (thanks to you), and on human grief and inability to step up to the cruelty the world can dish out, and on getting so lost in so much that we end up decaying alone.

Now, I don't want the above laundry list of human misery for myself, it's true, but the fact that the movie didn't empower me in anyway to avoid it--there's I think where any lesson of being better than Caden Cotard gets lost. Here, I'm clinging to my point about Caden's efforts at facing the real world being met with the film's most poignant cruelties. I see his reaching out points, with his wife, with his daughter, with Hazel as, yeah, maybe the other end of a dangerous pendulum swing, but still worth something. Still sincere. Still the best of Caden Cotard. And the fact that these moments are met with such tragedy, well right there any hypothetical (again, I don't think it exists) call-to-better-living from Charlie Kaufman gets swallowed and drowned for me. Synechdoche records the life of a faulted human being in a cruel universe and I feel a deep urge to (with all my will for masochistic viewing power) feel this and sit with it instead of flipping it around and looking at its mirror image and seeing some sort of backward inspirational emerge. So, I guess that's just what I'll do.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I've been searching for the way I want to talk about Lance Hammer's Ballast, a film whose narrative grows up from the Mississippi Delta, whose aesthetic ancestors hail from art cinema houses near and far, whose editing rhythms emerge from a rich tradition of leaving things unsaid, and whose distribution tactics result from a passionate DIY attitude. There's a lot to talk about and a good deal of it has already been said, which, oddly enough, leads me to my first point.

The way this movie looks and moves speaks to a lot of other styles and traditions, causing many reviewers to write about Ballast in these terms, terms like "aesthetic ancestors"...sound familiar? Yes, I feel the pull to say Ballast cuts and pauses like a David Gordon Green movie and hope that that reference might trigger some things in my reader(s) mind about how those cuts and pauses actually look and sound and feel. But, tempted as I am, I'm tired of reference. It's lazy. It can be a helpful shorthand but it has to actually be helpful, which means not so shorthand that nothing is actually said. Importantly, I appreciate comparisons and examples, it's just that they have to be explained, justified, cracked open, bled dry. That's the fun of it! If everything can be explained by just saying it's something else, where's the dirt and the joy and the discourse in that? Even in our post-modern whirlwind of ideas referencing ideas that only lead back to referencing those first ideas, even this has to be taken apart and spread out on the living room floor to really see how it's working. And another thing, letting a name and a short adjective phrase stand for making a critical observation keeps perfectly "qualified" people out of the conversation and anybody who is sincerely in pursuit of learning something, of engaging with the beast, and listening to other human beings, well they either don't or ought not do this. Ha. It sounds like I'm talking to somebody specific, but I'm not. It's a critical limitation of many, sometimes me.

In an effort to rein this thing in and bring it back to Ballast and at the risk of making this piece completely over-wrought with these meta-critical remarks, Michael Koresky's opening graph to his Reverse Shot article on Ballast first got me going on this mental jag and I continue to find his words quite liberating. He writes,

"It’s sometimes necessary to discuss a movie without reducing it to a category. Unfortunately, that’s not what critics often do. A film like Lance Hammer’s Ballast deserves to be considered on its own terms, rather than compartmentalized and defined in relation to concurrent film movements. To simply talk about the aesthetics and storytelling approach of Ballast by comparing it to the work of the Dardenne brothers or perhaps the American independent strategies of early David Gordon Green (both of which dredge up even more film historical categories, respectively neorealism and a Malickian brand of poetic naturalism) is an easy out, and not that different from reducing it to labels like 'Southern' or 'black.'"

Right on.

And so a few words on the film,
As it's title suggests, Ballast is heavy. It's a story of one twin's heartache at the loss of his other half and it's a story of the struggle to keep it all together in the face of poverty, broken family, and the trouble that rolls in like a dark storm when bored kids do dumb things. Hammer shapes this grief and struggle quietly: young James (JimMyron Ross) plays in the crowded remnants of an abandoned home; Lawrence (Michael J. Smith) finally emerges from his home to eat a silent dinner with a concerned neighbor; Marlee (Tara Riggs) stares at her son's bruised face; plastic deer stand stock still and expressionless in a cold yard. The midwinter Delta forms an unrelentingly gray backdrop, punctuated only by a lone motorbike careening through dirt roads and the sound of dried twigs crunched underfoot. Hammer's camera waits patiently with an image until we can fully feel the weight of the world sink into Marlee's posture, or James' gun-wielding hand, or Lawrence's eyelids. But Hammer doesn’t just use long takes, he describes a moment or a feeling by cutting together its most essential parts, a kind of elliptical editing that seems to channel the rhythms of an erratic, unseen ocean. Together, Ballast’s form and content create this omnipresent weight and conjures a feeling of unchangeability, brought even deeper by fleeting moments that hint of other, lighter worlds--a flock of birds taking flight, a train rushing through town, the speed of that motorbike against the wind. All of this is quite beautiful.

But what makes this movie special is its ability to slowly and subtly push back against the heaviness of the world. It does so through a rather hopeful theme of learning and teaching. Lawrence, Marlee, and James do not just personally commit to overcome their differences and march in unison toward a happy ending; their character development is not the product of individualized soul searching, which is why I find it helpful to understand their character development as more of a learning curve. From running the store, to overcoming grief, to putting down a gun, to the literal manifestation of this theme in Marlee and Lawrence’s decision to home-school James, the changes in these characters are results of one-on-one negotiations. In the face of such weight, they allow themselves to learn from each other. This movie isn’t as tidy as some would like to think; these peoples’ problems are too big and their futures are too fragile and Hammer is too smart for this thing to tie up in a clean bow, but the hope, the floating light in this heavy fog, is that simple idea that human beings can come together and learn from each other in order to make things work.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Going Public

For all of her young life, What Is This Light has been a secret blog or at least a semi-secret blog. A couple days ago I read Anna Clark's Bitch Magazine article, "The Ambition Condition: Women, Writing, and the Problem of Success" and it proved at once cathartic and terrifying. Clark says things I already know much too well but couldn't quite articulate. The thunder clap that hit the hardest inside this little heart is as follows:

"Ambition is a slippery creature in the lives of writers of all genders; no one is safe from feeling uneasy about affirming one’s literary ambitions, and insecurity is the devil of anyone who faces a blank page. But the thing is, women are more likely to be justified in doubting themselves. Yes, a woman is less likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 106 years of the prize, only 11 winners—about 10 percent of the total—have been female. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s 60-year history, female authors have snagged the award 27 times. Shaking out 57 years of the National Book Award for Fiction reveals a mere 15 female winners. As for journalists, the gender gap indicates that women are far less likely to land their stories in the nation’s top magazines and newspapers. Likewise, in the digital world, political candidates made a point of stopping by the YearlyKos conference last summer, headlined by a prominent progressive male blogger, but were absent from the BlogHer conference, which drew top women bloggers together. 

And So On
Furthermore, to even say that you want to write lasting novels, garner hundreds of thousands of blog hits, or handmake a chapbook is to expose yourself to the “who are you to think you have anything to say?” sort of pummeling that Gould received. It can be tempting, then, for women in particular to write quietly and hope that the work will speak for itself. But by not owning up to her ambitions—whether they are in the public or private realms—a writer feeds the machine that discounts the aspirations and talents of all women writers. The silence is implicit support for editors who claim that their byline disparity is because women don’t want it enough. It sets an example for other writers that ambition is something to be ashamed of. Though it might be the last thing in the world she means to do, by keeping her intentions for her work hidden, a female writer allows others to make assumptions about her work, and to decide where it will and will not go.

And so, I'm going public. I don't expect much to change around here, but I've mustered enough gumption to really take on this mental paradigm shift and so it's critically important for the blog to record this event
right here
right now.

Monday, November 10, 2008

You Really Hurt Me, "Synechdoche, New York"

I love Manohla Dargis' review of Synechdoche, New York, so much so that I want to feel this movie the way she did, but I just don't. I know my feelings about this movie are colored by the mental unbalancing act I was conducting the day I saw it--a mixture of headache, heartache, something flu-like, and seeing this sucker alone on a Sunday night--and I wonder if, upon a second viewing and/or Manohla's unlikely return of my (many) phone calls, I'll feel differently.

In Dargis' close, she raises her fist and sings:
Despite its slippery way with time and space and narrative and Mr. Kaufman’s controlled grasp of the medium, “Synecdoche, New York” is as much a cry from the heart as it is an assertion of creative consciousness. It’s extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.

I wholeheartedly agree that this movie is a "cry from the heart" and is "tethered to the here and now," but as it stands, I really can't feel this film as a call to life, to be present and loving in all the pain and muck and beauty. Maybe this sentiment resides somewhere in the film, but for me this lesson gets lost and obscured by the extent of cruelty and tragedy to which Caden Cotard (Philip Seymore Hoffman) is subjected.

When relationships crumble, when he reaches desperate measures with the younger (annoying) women around him, when his body pops and burps and twitches with disease, Caden Cotard uses his "genius grant" to construct a theatrical universe where he can play all these scenarios out with the theater director's strange combination of intimacy and remove. His construction of this universe is painstakingly elaborate. He pours himself into this inauthentic world and this is what Dargis sees as his fatal choice and this is what we're supposed to learn from. But I struggle to absorb this point because I don't think Caden actually does make this choice; Cotard does engage in the world around him! He heartbreakingly, desperately tries to do so! And, in a hopeless stroke of Kaufman's brush, these noble efforts are met with more cruelty, more dead ends, more death.

He longs for his disappeared daughter; he reads her diary; sends her gifts; touches her things; his memories are tangible. He tries to find her on multiple occasions and succeeds! And in these sought after encounters, he's quite brutally separated by soundproof glass, security guards, a decade of brainwashing, language, lies, and grief.

He longs for his wife. He stares at her studio, looks at her paintings, visits her exhibits, asks for her at the front desk, goes into her home, cleans her toilet, leaves her notes. As much as this character can be thrilled, Cotard gets a thrill (if tinged with masochism) from just briefly occupying spaces she inhabits. He takes in her obliviously insensitive notes--in which she thinks she's writing to her housekeeper Ellen but are actually to her ex-husband and secret housekeeper Caden--with deep breaths.

And after all of his crushed efforts to find the world, the family, the life he had created for himself, he faces reality in one more, crushingly honest way--he finally acknowledges the evasiveness of his previous life and opens up to have a real, loving connection with a longtime friend and partner. The gratification is pure because it's so fettered and honest and imperfect and it crashes to a close because she dies.

Yes, Cotard created a huge, inauthentic world, a carbon copy, a mold, a replica. But I don't see this as the escapism for which Dargis sees it, largely because it's coupled with all of these other honest, emotional actions. I see this massive construction and his leap into fabrication as a legitimate way to examine these real life tragedies. He stages them to remove himself just enough to put on his directorial jacket and analyze them. Given the cruelty of his life, one cannot blame him for going a little overboard with this project. I think this reading is better suited to Kaufman's film which is so soaked in modernist reflections on art, performance, filmmaking, storytelling, and inauthenticity. For, what is a movie if not a giant-expensive construction of a beast we might face off-camera. And what is this movie but an artificial projection of the terror and anxiety that floods the soul when disappointment overwhelms us, when such longing fills us, when things crack and then break irrecoverably, when death mounts.

Caden Cotard stages a production of Death of a Salesman with all young actors so that the tragedy grows out of realizing that the young, vibrant faces on stage are fated as well, to at least death if not Willie Loman's brand of loneliness. It seems Charles Kaufman gives us Synechdoche, New York with a similar message--not so much, you can face life and do better! but more, look how we must face life and see how it wilts us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Weird and The Night of the Hunter

I'm being quite serious and careful when I say Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter is, above all, weird. It came out of Hollywood at a moment (1955, the same year as Rebel Without A Cause) when very few members of the establishment were just dipping their toes in the stylistic and narrative risk-taking that would become more prominent in 60s and 70s American cinema. Night of the Hunter plays with light, mixes and matches angles, includes scenes and whole montages for their aesthetic/emotional effect, and generally paints with the brush of German Expressionism. It is incredible Laughton pushed this experimental gem out of and into its 1955 cultural and aesthetic context, but the real magic of the film arises from its very conscious play between this stylistic risk-taking and more traditional characters, settings, and modes of storytelling. In better words, Night of the Hunter tips its hat to the film it "should have been" before it completely departs from it; It politely acknowledges the culture's expectations and then delves into a deep underworld of experimental cinema past and future. In this way and in its existence as a major Hollywood motion picture, Night of the Hunter does not keep to itself and the expressionistic art world in which it belongs but engages in the rather aggressive art of subversion.

The film has a simple story: two kids with the onus of knowing where their dead father's fortune lies. One ridiculously evil, bible-wielding, manipulator (Robert Mitchum) pursuing the little ones into dark cellars, forests, rivers, and deserted Ohio Valley landscapes. As Michael Atkinson describes, "Hunter contains no social critique—the issues are elemental, the morality biblical, the trials Homeric." It's good and evil rendered so literal it's even inscribed on ole Reverend Powell's hands.
This simple story is given a predictable cast of characters. The evil preacher (Mitchum), the gullible and blasé mother/wife (Shelley Winters--about whom a wise best friend yelped, How did she ever have a career!? She's so dumpy and bland!?), the smart older brother who spends the whole movie desperately trying to protect what remains of his family, and the cabbage-patch-kid younger sister constantly making near-fatal mistakes. The town is composed of the kind of dumb, gossipy Americans you might find in the chorus line of a 1950s musical. They wear hats and assume that, since they live some place where nothing happens, we'll understand if they're being a little too nosy about their neighbors' business or sipping the whiskey a little too hard and a little too frequently. The place and the land are similarly recognizable; it's the Ohio river valley in all its bleak horizons and American flags and pictures of Abraham Lincoln. All of this extreme "normalcy" makes you think The Night of the Hunter is the movie it was sold as:

But, the world Laughton composes is not this Hollywood world and neither is it a pure art cinema revolt against it. The Night of the Hunter rests beautifully in between by using Expressionism's language and its love of the weird to create a world just one beat off of the expected Hollywood picture. It's this complicated and awesome trait of Laughton's film that gives rise to Night of the Hunter's similarities with all things Lynch; in its elements, the filmic world appears very "normal" or at least a very normal Hollywood adaptation of what is "normal," but in motion, this world is just oddly enough paced, just dark enough, just ugly enough, just surprising enough to be just perfectly off. John and Pearl, Laughton's two kids and the two characters closest to any sort of off-screen reality, could have been the kids next door in Twin Peaks. They commit to their prescribed characters--older, responsible boy and younger cute and gullible sister, but they look so weird!
They look like little Aliens
alien baby redux
And they do weird little things all the time! Four year old Pearl is constantly falling asleep. Pearl and John have just made their break for it and run to find help and Rev. Powell is on the prowl and I'm sweating on the couch and changing positions and clutching my best friend and Pearl, little crazy faced Pearl, is fast fucking asleep. What!?!
thanks a million, Pearl.
The Mitchum character is really bazaar too. Again, Reverend Powell pays an homage to a beloved cliché--the villain who wields a manipulative brand of Christianity and flaunts his own supposed piety in order to score some serious cash. And, of course, nobody's gonna get in his way, not even the pale and dumb Shelley Winters, who he'll ruthlessly murder, or the sweet Pearl, whose puppy-like devotion and trust he'll use and abuse. So, on paper we've got Rev. Powell pinned and it looks something like this:

Obviously, Rev. Powell is going to become monstrous as he gets closer to that money, but Laughton, using his bag of Exprissionistic tricks, makes him into really stunning, surprising kind of monster.

Watch first half of this clip for a bunch of reasons: First, related to this last point about Mitchum's character, the sound he makes in this scene is other worldly--this ain't no ordinary monster. Second, related to the previous point, Pearl's yawn is amazing. Third, the scene on the river and Pearl's song is really why this movie pushes and stretches the boundaries.

Finally, this scene with the underwater, murdered Shelley Winters provides the perfect encapsulation of what I'm trying to say. In a film where most scenes (save the above river boat scene so similar to this scene's lyricism) are about 12 seconds long, we're allowed to meditate on hair, water, weeds. It's beautiful and haunting and a very strange break from the action. But what makes this scene most remarkable is the same thing that makes this movie most remarkable. The art of this scene is not continuous; there's a cut to above water where a hyper-typical fisherman, replete with his less-mystical score and predictable expressions, sees the drowned angel. We cut back down to the solitude and beauty of the underwater art cinema. It's this interplay between cinematic modes, one of convention and the other of experimentation, that brought me in and took hold.