Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Very Long Engagement

In late November, Viv and I were happy to attend a Cinema Seattle preview screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's newest film, A Very Long Engagement. The film stars Audrey Tatou, who also had the lead in Amèlie. The film concerns a young woman's search for her fiancé, missing in the trenches of the First World War. Based on a novel, the film is long and ambitious, and generally succeeds. The nostalgia that Jeunet winked at in his depiction of a lovers' Paris in Amèlie is in full flower. Nearly every frame of the movie tenderly dotes upon the glories of France. Picturesque country farmhouses, the magnificence of Paris in the early twentieth century, and the valor and inventiveness of the French poilu on the lines on the Great War unspool with self-assurance.

All this viewing en rose would be insufferably – ah - cheesy in the hands of any other exponent of Gaul. When he resurrects a demolished Parisian public market, or one of the city's four great train stations on screen, it's like a visit from a loved one who perished in flame and fire. Americans may not be familiar with the landmarks, possibly undermining the appeal Jeunet is shooting for. As for me, I’m a certified cheese-monkey, and gleefully nibbled every stinky slice.

The film is structured as a mystery. After the war’s end, Tatou's polio-lame slip of a girl marshals facts and finds clues to the fate of a group of condemned prisoners among which was counted her beau. As she closes in, Jeunet flashes back to the trenches. The prisoners are all soldiers who have either deliberately or accidentally been shot in the hand and found guilty of the capital offense of self-mutilation. The method of execution chosen is to send the group into the teeth of German fire, alone and unarmed.

The film explores the personal stories of each of the men. The trenches themselves are rendered, as one might expect from Jeunet, with broad scale and muddy, half-flooded relish.

Jeunet intends to offset his nostalgia by slamming us into the trenches, looking at the cost of the Great War. He effectively relates the brutality and filth of the experience. Yet, Jeunet and Caro’s Delicatessen and City of Lost Children gleefully explored fantastic, failed worlds in which the brave face of beauty still managed to face the day, and his trenches are reminiscent of these dystopias. Therefore, the horrors he presents are blunted and easily taken for fantastic exaggeration. Unfortunately, he does not help his cause when a German biplane appears over the lines in a crucial plot point. The plane is verbally identified as a specific model of German machine with an unmistakable resemblance to a certain animal, which I won’t name so as not to spoil a minor plot point. The airplane seen on screen appears to be a postwar model, and is clearly not the plane spoken of.

It’s a quibble, surely; but in a postfilm appearance, Jeunet emphasized the verité of his trenches, the lengths to which he and his crew went to achieve an historicist presentation of the halls of mud. If that was indeed his primary goal (something I am skeptical of) he’s failed. I think it’s a forgivable oversight.

The plot's structure is clearly mythic. Our heroine journeys to each of the cardinal directions, departing on each quest from each one of the great train stations of Paris: the Gares du Nord, du Sud, de l'Est and de l'Ouest all make appearances. She journeys to a farm called the End of the World. Eventually, a character descends to the underworld before returning to the surface of the Earth.

From this unlikely set of elements - a nostalgic look at things past; a missing-persons mystery; a gritty war film; and myth - Jeunet has constructed a lovely, sad, and hopeful film that may well appeal to audiences that first saw his work with the justly celebrated Amèlie. As for me, well, I loved it.

I must note, however, that I am a certifiable Francophile, even against my better judgment. As I watched the film, curious, misplaced feelings strongly akin to patriotism stirred in me. Furthermore, I deeply admire Jeunet's films, even the generally dismissed Alien: Resurrection, and so I would say I am likely to find something to admire in anything he does.

Monday, May 31, 2004

In the Darko

Saturday night Vivian and I attended the Donnie Darko launch party at Consolidated Works. A good time was had by all. We hung out with Karla and her hubby Diego and assorted reprobates.

The highlight of the party came when, seated in a darkened theater, we overheard a conversation.

The younger, enthusiastic speaker turned to his neighbor directly behind us and asked, "So, who are you writing for?"

"I'd prefer to keep that undisclosed at this time." The speaker sported an affected mid-atlantic accent and his delivery dripped with ennui. I immediately started giggling, but believe I stifled it sufficiently that I was safe from a sudden kick to the head.

"Who have you talked to? Anyone good?"

"Some people from Maria Full of Grace, recently. Some others. We'll see."

There's a pause as the younger speaker digested his conversation partner's reticence. A gambit occured to him.

"Say, do you know Gillian Garr?"

At this, the urge to giggle increased, and I began eavesdropping in earnest.

The jaded man made a noncommittal noise. The younger speaker plunged ahead.

"Anyway, she has the greatest gig. Apparently, Tablet has some sort of blog, or something, and her job is to go around and write about all the SIFF parties. Isn't that the greatest gig?"

More noncommittal noises. The younger speaker gave up, seeing that his honest and naive friendliness was not reciprocated, and politely excused himself.

Meanwhile, my eyes are bugging out with suppressed laughter. The short that was playing in the theater ended, and Viv and I ventured forth to seek out Gillian and let her know what a great gig she has.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Folklife Surprise

So, today was spent wandering about Folklife, as I wrote over here. Note to self: the Funhouse appears to be a reincarnated Zak's, and I bet they have a better beer selection than Folklife this year. Folklife apparently only has two beer gardens this year and the ONLY beer on tap is from Henry Weinhard's, which is a mere smidge of an improvement over a Budweiser-only or Miller-only concession, just from a quality standpoint. I mean, last year, you could at least get Elysian brews or swill; this year, it was swill, swill, or swill.

So why am I posting this to the Siffblog? Because Greg and I were driven into the EMP's Liquid Lounge in search of a palatable brew. As we were leaving, a lovely Latin girl entered, accompanied by a young man, at the foot of the stairs near the streetside entrance to the Liquid Lounge. She looked familiar to me, and in a moment I realized I had seen Ms. Catalina Sandino Moreno, the star of SIFF entry Maria Full of Grace.

Two beers the wiser I unthinkingly stepped up to her and said, "Hey, I saw your movie. It was great."

She smiled and sad "Thank you! It was my best work."

I instinctively reached out and held her forearms as I said, "Well you were great. I expect more from you! I hope you enjoy the festival!" or something along those lines. Her hands were cold. She thanked me, and Greg and I continued down the stairs and out the door of the EMP.

A few steps later, the full surreality of what had just occurred started to enter my consciousness. I have written, here or elsewhere, about the reality-blurring effect of intensive press screenings - when theatrical movie viewing occupies the bulk of my working hours for days at a time, my sense of reality, of personal versus entertainment memories, blurs.

I reacted to Ms. Moreno as though she was, indeed, a personal acquaintance. The interaction was graceful, happily. I do, in fact, expect more great stuff from her. But I think it might be a good idea for me to more closely observe the naissance of my social feelings.

Thursday, May 20, 2004


Tativille is le site officiel of Jacques Tati's films. SIFF will be screening a new 70mm (!) print of Playtime, Tati's amazing 1967 look at city life.

At least one film screening at the festival, The Python, appears to have been partially inspired by Tati's cinematography and environmental sense of humor.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Mike's Bio

I'm the person that's providing the back end for this blog. I have my own over at, which I've been writing since early 2002. Both blogs use Movable Type, and run on an ancient computer secured in a secret facility somewhere near my living room.

I will be sitting the 2005 SIFF out, except for the vicarious participation of keeping an eye on this little experiment. I am currently the operations manager of an online retail startup. I am also the News Editor of Now Playing, a forward-looking pop-culture magazine. To date I have had the pleasure of covering mashups, genre fan film, machinima, and profiling Dan Clowes (Fantagraphics comics artist and the creator of ).

I've been a contributor to Tablet since last May 2003, coming aboard during last year's SIFF. I have not been an active contributor since the format change, as other commitments have intervened.

Previously, I was a Contributing Editor at Cinescape. Both my blog and Cinescape reawakened my interest in writing, something I had stopped doing after college. Instead, I worked as a designer and web developer for most of the nineties.

Since picking up the pen once more, I have also written for The Stranger as well as The Comics Journal.

In each case, I'd love to do more for them, but as noted above, I am pretty well booked.

Monday, May 17, 2004


Without an entry in a category, the top navigation won't render when the site publishes.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Hallucinatory Pummeling

This is the first year that I had the opportunity to take as full an advantage of my SIFF press pass as I have wanted to, and for the first two weeks of screenings, I was very diligent about seeing every film shown, about three a day for two weeks.

I had been warned by others that when one is viewing films for review in volume, it becomes crucial to take extensive notes, something that I try to avoid when viewing films one at a time for review. I've found that If I'm taking notes as the film screens, I'm much less likely to experience the film like a casual viewer and therefore may miss the quality of emotional involvement in the film which is part of he aim of many commercial films.

The reason it's important to take good notes in viewing lots of films for review is that after a couple of days, your memory breaks down, and you'll inadvertently find yourself mixing up characters, scenes, and situations. The notes help ensure that what you turn in represents what you saw.

Despite this, not only do the films blend together in one's mind, to a certain extent the memories become dissociated: you may find yourself recalling how nice it was to sit by the river with James Garner, or what a pretty girl that French chick is that you met the other day, or how good that food looked in that Chinese family's roadside lunch counter. The films' depictions of experiences begin to occupy the places that are normally used to store personal experience.

This effect renders everything slightly dreamlike, because you learn to distrust your memory.

Adding to the strangeness is the emotional effect of being absorbed by the narratives that you're being presented with. Generally, filmmakers aim for the maximum emotional and visual persuasiveness that they can accomplish. They'll do anything to involve you in the emotional rhythm of the story, and that means there are certain tricks that are used over and over again. Over swelling strings, the actor's eyes widen as her head tilts back, mouth opening, and a gentle rain spatters her face. The camera pulls back, swooping away, and the rain becomes a torrential downpour as brasses enter the soundtrack.

Despite the recognizable and mechanical nature of many of these tricks, they remain effective rhetorical tropes, even after sitting through many movies. It's possible that they become even more effective over time through repetition. As audience members, we're conditioned to respond to these gestures, slavering when the bell sounds.

This operant-conditioning effect (the reward is produced within our bodies as endorphins are released in response to the emotive cues) has a cumulative effect. After achieving that critical mass of film-viewing where one's memories break down, the emotional pummeling has a stronger effect, rendering even hack films capable of carrying a wallop. It's like being slightly drunk all the time, off balance and easily swayed.