Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Film Comment Poll

Below are my picks for Film Comment's best-of-the-decade poll. I'll be interested to see the final tallies. The most interesting part for me was picking a top twenty from 1999. I hate to be one of those people eternally lamenting the declining of quality cinema (I'm looking at you, Denby), but in retrospect it seems like a much better year for movies than 2009.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Audiences, Surprised and Surprising

As a person who works in a museum, I found last night's episode of Project Runway (which, yes, I watch) pretty intriguing. The designers were sent to the Getty Museum to be inspired by its collection. Their choices - which were, for the most part, things I would probably ignore - were surprising.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Versus/Onion Interview

Here is an interview with me in the Onion AV Club about our screening last week of Versus. Watching it again, I noticed a whole bunch of awesome things I had forgotten about, not least of which was Kitamura's bizarre notion of narrative structure: There is virtually no plot until the second half of the film, when the bad guy enters with a delivery of exposition. Then it gets right back to the interdimensional zombie/yakuza fighting.

Kitamura's innovation struck me the next night, when I made the mistake of watching The Fast and the Furious 4: Fast and Furious, which is supposed to be about car chases, but contains far too few of those, opting instead for endless, lengthy dialogue scenes that contain nothing but exposition. For a movie like that, how much do you need, really?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I'm fully aware that Slate's bread and butter is, along with explaining things, a peculiar brand of tepid, middle-brow contrarianism. I sometimes think their writer's guidelines consist entirely of: "Pick a thing, then disagree with it a little bit." So when someone pointed me to this article by Grady Hendrix about Chinese cinema, my first reaction was along the lines of "meh." But the more I thought about it the more its biases bugged me, so here we go.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Chinese Films Withdrawn from Melbourne

Jia Zhangke and two other directors have withdrawn their films from the Melbourne International Film Festival because of the festival's decision to include a documentary on Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer. dGenerate Films has posted a translation of Jia's official statement on the matter, and Richard Brody provides some context.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The End of Oshima

I have to wonder if, when he made Gohatto, Oshima knew it would be his last film, because its final image - of Takeshi Kitano hacking down a cherry blossom tree - so perfectly distils his lifelong rebellion against all things traditionally Japanese.

Although the retrospective continues for a couple more weeks at the AFI Silver, Gohatto was the last screening at the Freer, and its ending was even more appropriate, since it took place smack-dab in the middle of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Monday, March 09, 2009

For Further Research: Oshima and Math

It occurred to me after seeing both Three Resurrected Drunkards and Sing a Song of Sex this weekend, that the plots of both revolve around numerical imbalances. The eponymous three drunkards in the first film keep running into problems because there are only two Korean spies trying to switch identities with them, which in the other, the four male students are chasing after three female students (and a fourth who is unattainable.)

I'm sure there is a screenwriting manual somewhere that advises that imbalance is what sets plot in motion, but I've never seen this put into practice to mathematically before. Unless I'm totally wrong.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watching Three Resurrected Drunkards with Two or Three Minds

About halfway through watching Three Resurrected Drunkards I began to wonder if it was the right choice for the opening film of the Nagisa Oshima retrospective. This is because, at that point in the film (which is already deliberately, provocatively nonsensical), Oshima essentially pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet with a structural gag that, without revealing too much, goes on for a while and, to the inattentive observer, could appear to be a projection error.

I was sitting in the back of the theater, and after a couple of minutes people began making their way back to tell me there was a problem. I had to repeatedly reassure them that what was going on was intentional. Some of them became desperate. “How long is it going to go on?!” shouted one distraught soul. “Why is he doing this?!” agonized another. More than a handful of other people didn’t bother complaining and simply walked out, probably convinced that they never need to see another Oshima film. I began to fret and wonder if I shouldn’t have opened with something easier to digest. Washington audiences, more, I’ve noticed, than audiences in some other cities, crave certainty, and they were clearly not going to get it from this film. I began to dread the comments I would have to face in the lobby later.

Things settled down when it became clear what Oshima was doing, and afterwards the comments were actually mostly positive. A Korean friend thought his treatment of Korean-Japanese relations was quite brilliant. Others made connections to Godard and Hard Days Night, and appreciated the political use Oshima’s radical aesthetic experimentation was put to.

After it was all over and I had some time to think, I realized that I had been watching the movie with too much of my film programmer mind engaged – I was too worried that Oshima’s project of challenging the audience was too alienating, that people weren’t ready for it, when I should have been appreciating his cantankerous audacity. Because, as a film fan, I loved it, kind of in the way the masochist loves the pain of the slap. Oshima had created an extra-cinematic experience, forced people to question what they were seeing, caused some of them to make the decision to get out of their seats in anger and confusion to seek answers.

So I changed my mind. Three Resurrected Drunkards was the perfect opening film. Now those who can take it know what they’re in for, and the timid can stay away.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mark Jenkins on "Roads to the Interior: Another Side of Japanese Cinema"

Thanks to Mark Jenkins for the thoughtful recap of the Japanese film series I programmed last year at ReelDC.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The list of criminally-neglected foreign films is a long one indeed, but one I really want to beat the drum for is Miwa Nishikawa's Sway. According to Nishikawa, it was inspired by a nightmare, and even though there is nothing supernatural about it, that atmosphere of nightmare-dread we've all felt saturates every frame. It's a remarkable feat of sustained mood.

I included it in a program of recent Japanese films last year, and it provoked the most interesting audience reactions in the lobby after the screening. What I, and others, found so powerful and haunting about it is that it's a movie essentially about ambiguity - the impossibility of truly knowing what motivates even those closest to you (to reveal any more would give away too much of a plot that depends on a key not so much plot twist as swerve early on that has the effect of knocking you off balance for the rest of the film.)

Even more fascinating to me were the reactions of the people who disliked it precisely because of its ambuguity. Some of them even seemed angry - they wanted answers that Nishikawa explicitly resists giving. Which makes me think that Nishikawa is a poet in an age that only wants information.

You can read David Wilentz's interview with her at The Brooklyn Rail, and buy the DVD at Amazon.

Harikikigaki, a 16th Century Japanese Medical Manual

Harikikigaki is a medical manual published in Japan in 1568 which describes how to combat the little critters which were believed to live inside the body and cause disease. Some, like the guy illustrated here, even wear hats in an attempt to avoid medicine. You can see a selection of them at Pink Tentacle.

Favorite Musical Moments of 2008 (In No Particular Order)

1. TV On The Radio, Dear Science.

2. Esau Mwamamwaya and Radioclit, "Tengazako." It turns out there is room in this world for one more version of MIA's "Paper Planes." This one is from Africa and is full of joy.

3. DJ Earworm, "If I Were a Freefallin' Boy (Beyonce vs. Tom Petty)." The great thing about this mash-up is that it saves you time by allowing you to listen to two great songs at the same time.

4. Lil Wayne, "Mr. Carter." I give up. The guy's great. Even the seasons are jealous of him, or so he boasts here.

5. The dream I had in which Sonic Youth were playing a concert as a kind of lecture-demonstration - they would describe how they were making their guitar sounds while they were playing. As if their music is now so old that it is considered classical.

6. Conor Oberst, "Moab" and Fleet Foxes, "White Winter Hymnal." Talk about classicism. Two great singles by guys who have learned from their forbears.

7. Mavis Staples on the NPR radio show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. She didn't do much singing, but she stole the show in an old-school, show business way. Plus she revealed that Bob Dylan once proposed marriage to her!

8. Ida Maria, "Oh My God." Full-throttle Scandinavian pop-rock. She is apparently so badass that she broke her ribs during a show when she threw herself into an amp.

You can find a lot of this this stuff on Hype Machine.