Monday, July 27, 2009

Dreamy Artisan Cinema: Part Two

(Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, 2008, 81 mins.)

Click here for part one

Turns out the money is the easy part. Juan borrows from a friend, but help continues to allude him and he can't reach his mother by telephone. The pastel port town of Progreso looks real, but ascribes to a sort of dream logic. Passive if persistent, Juan watches a video with David, then shares a meal with him and his evangelical mother.

Eimbcke, who wrote the semi-autobiographical script with Duck Season's Paula Mar-
kovitch, suggests that Juan needs the companionship of these lonely people as much as they need him. The difference is, they seem to know it, and he doesn't.

Juan walks home, but his mother and younger brother are in no mood to talk, so
he returns to town to pick up the missing part. Next thing he knows, he's watching Enter the Dragon with David, hanging out with Lucía, the aspiring punk-rock singer and single mother (Daniela Valentine) who works with him at the auto parts store, and walking—then losing—Don Heber's beloved boxer. A skinny, sad-faced kid whose clothes hang from his frame, Juan knows how to say no, but not very forcefully.

The reason for his demeanor gradually comes into relief, but Eimbcke drops some broad hints along the way. If the film works, and it does, it would work even better if those hints had been more subtle or had arrived closer to the end, but the way the director infuses a laconic comedy with layers of loss and longing links Lake Tahoe with Duck Season, and serves as a nominal sequel since he features the same actor, and despite the move from black and white to color, urban to rural, interior to exterior.

On the basis of his first film, among the best of '06, I wouldn't have predicted that Eimbcke might one day recall Carlos Reygadas, except the distance between Lake Tahoe and Silent Light* is surprisingly short, while a greater gap lies between him and Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, since the Three Amigos are more genre-oriented (and though he thanks the last two in the credits).

At this point in their respective careers, Eimbcke and Reygadas have the art house in their (widescreen) sights, but while it's hard to imagine Carlos transitioning to Amer-
ican-style filmmaking, Fernando's interest in restless teenagers—notwithstanding Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También—predicts a career more like Kelly Reichardt or early
Gus Van Sant (especially Mala Noche) than any other Mexican filmmaker to date.

If Lake Tahoe isn't as funny as Duck Season, a low-income twist on Risky Business,
i.e. bored teenager makes the most of an unsupervised Sunday, it's a richer work.

Though Eimbcke relies too much on Jim Jarmusch's fade-to-black device and though
the sleepy pace has its longeurs (even at 81 minutes), he accurately reproduces the
rhythms of small-town life where the seemingly minor episodes between major ev-
ents and the seemingly random strangers who enter your life can attain mythic di-
mensions when the familiar can't—at least temporarily—offer the necessary support.

* DP Alexis Zabé also shot Silent Light.

Lake Tahoe continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/30 at 7 and 9pm.
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more infor-
mation, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Film Movement.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dreamy Artisan Cinema

(Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, 2008, 81 mins.)

"The director calls his style 'artisan cinema'; I just call it dreamy."
-- Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times

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On a sunny day in the Yucatán, a red Nissan whizzes by and then, after the screen fades to black, the sound of a crash rings out. The picture returns. For reasons unexplained, the teenaged driver has smashed the family car into a telegraph pole. Apparently unharmed, he sets out to seek help for his ailing automobile.

As in Eimbcke's 2004 debut, Duck Season, cinematographer Alexis Zabé uses long, static shots to capture this prologue. Moments later, while Juan (Diego Cataño) waits for suspicious old coot Don Heber (Héctor Herrera) to assist him, Zabé shoots their figures from Ozu's "tatami mat" level, rendering Heber's vertical figure headless.

Once convinced Juan isn't trying to rob him, Heber slurps down a bowl of cereal, recommends a distributor harness, and then promptly falls asleep in his backyard hammock, leaving Juan to continue combing the empty streets for assistance.

Finally he meets David (Juan Carlos Lara), a martial arts-obsessed mechanic who gives him a ride to the sedan on his bike. David offers to repair the damage for 300 pesos, which Juan doesn't have, so the quest for help turns into a quest for money.

Click here for part two.

Lake Tahoe continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/30 at 7 and 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Image from IONCINEMA.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Five

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part four)

I have a connection to San Francisco, but it’s mostly based in the 1980s and the early-‘90s, and I don’t know the city now the way you do, but I’m always interest-
ed in its representation on screen, so in terms of recent, bigger-budget films, I’m wondering what you thought about the city in Zodiac, which I understand is mostly blue screen. That amazed me, and I didn’t find out until afterwards. And Milk, where Gus Van Sant filmed in some of the actual locations. As someone making films in San Francisco—and these movies are so different from yours—were you at all affected by how they represented the city or what they were trying to do?

You know, it’s weird, but I wrote Medicine before I saw Zodiac—definitely before.
We had finished the film before I saw Milk. Those two, along with The Pursuit of Happyness, are three San Francisco movies that portray the city well. And of course they’re all period pieces. Zodiac is such a good movie, and it’s a great representation of the city. As for Milk, they completely re-did the Castro, like the main strip. I re-
member one day coming out of the BART station, and waiting to catch the bus, the 48, 22, or 28—I think; I’ve traveled so much this year—but the bus stop was not there. There’s a stop right in front of Diesel, in front of the little pizza joint, and I was like, “Where the hell’s the bus stop?” This went on for about a week, and I couldn’t figure out where the stop was, and I looked up at the Castro Theater, and
I realized. I was like, “Man, that sign looks different,” and then I realized the stop was gone because they were physically transforming the entire block, and that’s where a lot of Harvey’s life, in the film, took place. I don’t know what the budget was—it couldn’t have been very much—but they made that block authentic.

Above: Sean Penn speechifying his way to a second Oscar in Milk.

It was impressive, and I’ve seen many movies filmed in or about San Fran-
cisco in the ‘70s, and it was true to them, too, like That Man: Peter Berlin.

I’ve not seen that.

It’s about this gay porn star, whose main claim to fame was just walking around the Castro. He was this good looking German guy who came to America and reinvented himself—like everybody else in the ‘70s—got involved with the Warhol community, and had an affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. I mean, it all probably sounds very familiar, but he invented himself as this beautiful blond god who would just walk
up and down the street, and everyone would go, “Wow.” He eventually directed some porno films. I think he only made two. He’s a legend for those films, but people mostly just remember him for walking up and down the street, and he still lives there. I was reminded of those scenes, and thought: that’s the Castro that features in Milk, except Berlin isn’t representative of the kind of person Harvey
Milk or his friends were—they weren’t glamour guys…but that’s another story.

Is it a documentary?

Yes, it’s a documentary. It’s really good. A friend of my Dad’s used to coordinate the Castro Street Fair every year; he’s now deceased. I have weird connections to San Francisco, and that’s one of them. You answered the new film question, but what about older films? Did you grow up on things like What’s Up, Doc? or Bullit?

No, no, not at all. I wasn’t a film person. I was just literally walking across campus one day and saw a sign that said “film school.” That was how this all started. I was into football. There were three running backs on my high school team. One of them is [indistinguishable], the other two made it to the NFL; so it was a really big pro-
gram, and I wasn’t into film at all. My interests were very, very different. At Florida State, I was an English education major, and I was walking across campus when I saw this sign, so I applied, because I wasn’t satisfied with the education [program], and so I got into film school, didn’t have any experience, didn’t know you needed light to expose film, so the first semester was rough. You walk in and immediately there’s a Bolex camera and a 100-foot spool of film. The first day of class the pro-
fessor says, “This is how you load it. Go out and shoot something.” He doesn’t give you a light meter, doesn’t tell you anything; he just wants to see what we can do.

And most of the students had more experience than you?

My first attempt was terrible. It was embarrassing—I was embarrassed.
It was very clear I wasn’t prepared for this, so I went to the dean after
the first semester, and I was like, “Dean, I really want to be here, and
I really want to do this, but I’m not ready,” so he gave me a year off.

That’s a nice guy.

It was actually convenient, because at that point, the film school was going through
a transition period; you could come back as a transfer, do the program in two years, or as a freshman, and do it in three years, but you’re all together the first semester. There was a freshman who thought he was ready, so he accelerated to my place, and I dropped back to his. I took a still photography class and took black and white 35mm prints and made the prints myself and lived at the art library. I checked out photography books and read Masters of Light and all these things on painting and cinematography, and I started watching movies, and I read Sight & Sound.

I love Sight & Sound. That’s all I subscribe to. I read as much on-line as I can, but
as far as magazines are concerned, you only have so much time, so that’s the one. It was Satyajit Ray’s favorite—that’s what he was reading 30-40 years ago—whe-
ther you write about films or make them, you’re part of this awesome tradition.

I don’t know why I gravitated towards Sight & Sound. I just wanted—like, what’s the film criticism magazine, and that was it, so I just blindly picked it up, and there was
a film library on campus and the only things that weren’t always checked out were these bad VHS copies of new wave films, these really obscure foreign or independent movies, so I was literally just immersing myself in these really esoteric, odd movies, and that was the baseline for me as a filmmaker. I didn’t have any background, any film studies projects that year, and so in that year off, I gorged myself on those types of things, and then when I came back to the department, I’d developed an aesthetic that wasn’t rooted in this love of American cinema or mainstream cinema in general, whether American or foreign. It was weird. I think it gave me an interesting perspective as a filmmaker, and things just took off from there. My first short film was in Arabic. It was about this couple washing American flags on the night shift.

In Arabic? That was a bold move.

Oddly enough, it’s the only film I traveled with before Medicine. It screened at quite
a few festivals, and the only one I visited was the Arab Film Festival here in Seattle.

Was that My Josephine?

My Josephine, yeah. That was a really cool experience.

Click here for part six and here to watch his short films.

Endnote: Images from Phoenix, New York Magazine, and Strike Anywhere Films.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Little Film That Did

Last June, Steve Clare (Prost Amerika, Seattle Fine Arts Examiner) and I took Lynn Shelton up on her offer to visit the set of Humpday. Shortly thereafter, I filed a digressive dispatch about our field trip, while he interviewed the director via email prior to the Centerpiece Gala premiere at this year's Seattle International Film Festival.

At the time I wrote, "I have no idea whether this micro-budget film will actually 'work' or not. Based on the quality of Shelton's previous efforts, though, I have faith. The scenes were intriguing, and since she's working with a more experienced cast, the movie might even attract more attention than We Go Way Back and My Effortless Bril-
despite—or even because of—the fact that she made it on a smaller scale."

Shelton, Leonard, and Duplass at Sundance '09

Since completion, Humpday has attracted far more attention than I could have
ever possibly predicted. Shelton has traveled with "the little film that could" to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, and Edinburgh and has appeared in a number of high-profile publications, including The New York Times. It's rare for a local film to receive this kind of exposure. It's also incredibly exciting and extremely well deserved.

Since Clare used a few of my questions, I secured his permission to repro-
duce his Q&A here. Humpday opens in Seattle and New York this Friday.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Clare: In as many or as few words as it needs,
how does a Seattle filmmaker become a success?

Shelton: By making regular sacrifices to the aztec fertility goddess CIHUACOATYL.

Clare: Do you intend to stay in Seattle and continue to make film here?

Shelton: Yes, I do.

Clare: Was there a pivotal moment when it
dawned on you Humpday was going to be big?

Shelton: When Mark Duplass said he'd do it, I had a hunch. Signing
Joshua Leonard on added to my hopes. And when Alycia Delmore
said yes, I pretty much knew I had a blockbuster on my hands.

Clare: What have you learned about male bonding since My Ef-
fortless Brilliance
? Do you like us more, the more you find out?

Shelton: You become even more adorable with every movie I make.

Clare: In an unashamed moment of unadulter-
ated "luvviness," pay tribute to your co-stars.

Shelton: Yes, my actors are talented. Incredibly talented. But what impressed me even more was the high level of commitment they brought to the set. The only possible way a film like this could have ever worked was with that kind of engage-
ment on the part of the entire cast, and those guys brought it, they really did.

Clare: Mark [and Jay] Duplass made Baghead and you've made
Humpday. Is there something to be said for one-word film titles?

Shelton: Only when you combine two words to
make one. There is something to be said for that.

Clare: What's next for Lynn Shelton?

Shelton: I plan on making more films.

Clare: Do you have any interest in making a film about women?

Shelton: No. Girls are boring. Just kidding! I'm very
excited to work with the female race some day.

[We Go Way Back, her feature-film debut, focuses on a female character.]

Fennessy: How much of the dialogue was improvised?

Shelton: 110%

Fennessy: What do your parents think about it?

Shelton: My dad and stepmom saw it at Sundance and lov-
ed it. My mom and stepdad will see it at SIFF; I have high
hopes that they won't disown me but you never know.

Fennessy: Have you ever been to Hump?

Shelton: No; it always sells out before I can get a ticket!

[Slightly revised from the original text.]

Related reading: Click here for my '06 interview with Shelton and here
for the '08 interview Clare and I conducted with Mark and Jay Duplass.

Endnote: Humpday opens in Seattle on 7/10 at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy) and in New York at the Angelika Film Center (18 West Houston St.). According to Shelton, the film "will roll out to other cities in the weeks following (for a complete list, please refer to the Humpday website)." Images from Magnolia Pictures and indieWIRE.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Everything Dies in Godard's Made in U.S.A. Pt 2

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966, 90 mins.)

Click here for part one

In Made in U.S.A., the plot isn't the point, though the film does have one, loosely borrowed from Richard Stark's novel The Jugger* and Howard Hawks' noir The Big Sleep. In Godard's post-modern policier, newly-retired reporter Paula Nelson (Godard's ex-wife, Anna Karina) sets out to determine what happened to her lover, Richard. When he turns up dead, she tries to figure out who killed him. Or so she says.

Since Karina is such a sympathetic presence and since the proceedings play out from Paula's perspective, it's easy to side with her trenchcoat-clad femme fatale even as she murders several men, putting her proclaimed innocence in serious doubt.

Just as the location is an abstraction, death also plays for laughs until Paula's final homicide, which brings her to tears. When she shoots Donald Siegel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), however, he dies in such a comical fashion, it's hard to suppress a smile.

Aside from Siegel, a reference to the Baby Face Nelson auteur, Godard's Atlantic City features Ben Hecht and Preminger Streets and characters named Inspector Aldrich, Miss Daisy Kenyon, Paul (not Richard) Widmark, and David Goodis, author of the novel behind Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player. As is his wont, Godard also works in nods to Italian poetry, German psychology, and Japanese film, as embodied by Doris Mizoguchi (Kyoko Kosaka), who sings a lovely little number in Paula's tub.

Furthermore, Godard and DP Raoul Coutard use the color red here much as in Pierrot le Fou and La Chinoise. It saturates the scene in spectacularly vivid form. When blood flows, it looks more like cherry-flavored cough syrup than actual sanguination.

That said, Made in U.S.A. isn't a comedy, not when Godard aligns the plight of Paula's paramour with left-wing Moroccan opposition leader Ben Barka, who also disappeared for months before his body was discovered (he had been tortured to death).

Consequently, tone and pacing tend to vary wildly, contributing to the picture's poor reception in some quarters, although a few contemporary critics, like David Phelps and Jonathan Rosenbaum, consider it among the filmmaker's finest works.

It's also worth noting that Godard shot his 12th film at the same time as Two or Three Things I Know About Her, which has been more widely seen and celebrated over the years. Nonetheless, I prefer Made in U.S.A., particularly since Godard largely avoids the didacticism that would mar much of his output in subsequent decades. Just as Chinatown and Atlantic City signify places and ideas of places, Made in U.S.A. signifies a place and an idea of a place: the inside of Jean-Luc Godard's big, beautiful brain.

* The pen name of author Donald E. Westlake, whose novel inspired Point Blank.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

"I started off intending to make a simple film; and for the first time I tried to tell
a story. But it isn't my way of doing things. I don't know how to tell stories. I want
to cover the whole ground, from all possible angles, saying everything at once."
-- Jean-Luc Godard, La Nouvel Observateur (1966)

Made in U.S.A. continues at the Northwest Film Forum through 7/9 at 7 and 9pm.
The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Incidentally, though never before available in the US, Criterion now lists a DVD release date of 7/21. Images from The Auteurs and DVD Beaver.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Everything Dies in Godard's Made in U.S.A.

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966, 90 mins)

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."--Walsh (Joe Mantell), Chinatown (1974) 

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact."--Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City" (1982)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

In Polish-American transplant Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), the title signifies a place and an idea of a place. In Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980), the title signifies a place and an idea of a place, but the French filmmaker actually shot his character piece in the American city of the same name, while LA's Chinatown only cameos in Polanski's classic noir.

France's Jean-Luc Godard beat both of his contemporaries to the punch with Made in U.S.A., which takes place entirely in a fictional "Atlantic-Cité." The great thing about the concept is that Godard makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he shot his film in Paris with a Gallic cast speaking en français (further, according to Rialto's press notes, the word "cité," in his native country, "usually refers to a housing project").

Though British singer Marianne Faithfull drops by to sing 1964's "As Tears Go By"--acappella, no less--this is still a French filmmaker's comment on American pop culture and the future of the left, circa 1966 (two years later, Godard made Sympathy for the Devil with the song's authors, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones).

Click here for part two

Not to be confused with the Lori Singer/Adrian Pasdar picture, Made in U.S.A., in a new 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum through 7/9 at 7 and 9pm (no 9pm screening on 7/4). Never on TV, video, or DVD. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Image from Tout le Cine and The French American Chamber of Commerce.