Friday, July 3, 2015

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

A maddening documentary for opposite reasons: sloppy story framing and contrived framing. In many moments, context, chronology, and even character are so muddled, that even the compelling subject matter fails (and I was left feeling guilty that I just didn't care), and in other moments, the purportedly candid, spontaneous scenes (the trip to Coney Island, the phone call) feel anything but candid, and I wondered, uncomfortably, just how much the director was directing (eg. I imagine this: "Could you say that again, but include how many children you have and how long it's been since you've seen your mother?").

The sloppiness, I think, is an aim at artfulness - and in the hands of a more experienced director and editor, the cuts from one contextless scene to the next could have added up to emotional depth and a clearer arc. There are enough poignant moments - the camera held on the face of one boy or of their mother, a scene of vibrant dancing and running down tight hallways - that I can see the glimmers of a powerful film in the tangle. As it is, so artless, I felt uncomfortably complicit - in the act of watching - in something bordering on the exploitative and sensationalist.

The choice to make the boys essentially nameless is also unsettling; we get a recital of their names at the beginning, but throughout the film, those names are lost in the "pack." It is a deliberate choice, of course, to show the boys as so tightly connected to one another - a survival mechanism, a mechanism forced on them, too, given the tight, prison-like living quarters - but the effect of the choice is that it alienates me from the boys as individuals, from their stories. The larger story remains fuzzy, distant, cold.

And then, wandering round the edges of the film, acknowledged once initially and then mostly forgotten, is the sister who is "special," a lonely vulnerable figure who holds the deepest poignancy for me; I left the cinema worrying for her most, and, ironically enough, it is her name, Vishnu, alone that I remember though even the director herself doesn't seem very interested in her.

I believe Crystal Moselle's heart is in the right place - the film feels like a sincere effort to tell a story and to tell it truthfully - but the skill, or lack thereof, undermines the effort too much to be able to recommend the film. As my friend said to me as we walked out of the cinema, "I wish we'd just read an article about this family instead." And given the cinematic interests of the boys in the family - their own love for film, and film, like their pack grouping, being a tool of survival for them - it's a real shame. I wonder how they themselves will feel about this documentary about them, particularly when they (re)watch it years from now, more distant from the situation of their growing up?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Bland Barry: An Epic about a Thoroughly Mediocre Fellow: BARRY LYNDON (Stanely Kubrick, 1975)

One of the most interesting things about Barry Lyndon is that he's boring. He's a bit stupid - but not enough for me to feel sorry for him; he's a bit pompous - but not enough for me to hate him; he's somewhat good-looking - but not enough to inevitably draw the eye; he shows some bravery - but it's a workaday sort that anyone might show; his beginnings are poor - but not too desperately poor; his end has some tragedy - but it is not terribly so (he does get to keep his knee and 500 a year).

And so the grandeur of the vehicle that carries him - an epic film - epic in length, epic in beauty and filled with wars and duels and love affairs and wealth - is perhaps the great joke: an essentially average person, someone I neither love nor hate, gets the title card.

Is Stanley Kubrick giving me a conspiratorial elbow to the ribs or a mocking grin? I am not sure if I am in on the joke or the butt of it, for while I can see the irony of the thing, I cannot, in the end, easily distance myself from it. I am uncomfortably suspicious of two things: one, that every film, every story I've ever watched or ever read is not really about a hero at all (perhaps even the idea of a protagonist is bogus); they all feature average, boring people; I've just been fooled by the accoutrements. Two, that we are each terribly average - and well, a bit boring - in spite of the central role we each feel we play in our own lives.

When presented finally at court, a title carries no real consequence, and the king, however polite, cannot really place the man with the grand title as one of those among his acquaintance and within his respect.

Barry Lyndon is only Redmond Barry after all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"Let's Listen" - The House Is Black (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1963)

"Alas, for the day is fading the evening shadows are stretching. Our being like a cage full of birds is filled with moans of captivity."

This documentary, following the lives of those living in a leper colony, is the only film of Forugh Farrokhzad, a woman Iranian poet, who died at 32, only four years after making the film, but it is, at 21 minutes, spare and powerful, and it is no wonder that it is credited with sparking the Iranian New Wave.

She films as you might expect a poet to do - layering spoken verse (from the Bible, the Koran, and Farrokhzad's own poetry) with potent, select images, each image speaking volumes, some images repeated - all together creating threads of being and feeling.  At first, one feels horror - the toeless foot with scissors snipping away at dead flesh, the eyeless face, the noseless face - but horror quickly falls into sympathy and then into something more complex, something like empathy. - What is that? That is a person. That is someone like me. -

The film ends in a schoolroom of children, some adults around the edges.
"You. Name a few beautiful things," says the teacher.
The boy student pauses. "The moon, sun, flowers, playtime."
To another student, "And you, name a few ugly things."
Another pause.
"Hand. Foot. Head."
I, watching and listening, feel a shock of sympathy - in this boy's life, the human body is an ugly thing.
But, as in a gentle contradiction to my response, those in the school room do not cry.  The room erupts in laughter. Laughter. And the boy's eyes light up; he ducks his head, a sweet modesty in having unexpectedly made a joke.

Like the best kind of film, this film shows me my own failures to see and understand - and makes me see, makes me feel. And the world is suddenly much richer.

"Let's listen to the soul who sings in the desert."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Musings on Poetry and Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

A friend of mine - a former student and a budding poet, headed for an MFA in poetry program this fall – recently told me that the more he works his craft, the more he finds he wants to compress, the more he wants to replace an initial phrase with a single word or to replace a set of phrases with just one brief phrase. The idea is to create a work full of just a few potent words - words that contain multitudes, so to speak - instead of a work full of many less resonant ones.

What he wants to offer the reader, I think, is something like a seed, a latent, fertile thing that, when planted in the reader’s mind, germinates and expands. And his poetry, as I read each new poem he sends me, is increasing in these kinds of compression-fueled expansions. His work is, more and more, made up of compact sets of lines that feed a reader’s delight: they puzzle at first in their bold brevity – but then, as I sit with a particular poem, letting my tongue savor the sounds and my mind mull the possibilities, a meaning will open as with a sudden blooming, and then there's another, and another meaning, until the poem fills all my thoughts and feelings – and I find I have been a participant in that deeply personal discovery that readers of poetry often feel, a discovery dependent upon that unique, intimate interaction between poem and reader.

Poets like my friend understand that poetry is not really poetry if it has no reader; to even exist, it, in some sense, needs a reader, a reader willing to grasp, plant, and water those word-seeds. The poet depends on readers for the poems to live. And the reader, likewise, understands that there is very little joy in reading if the poet does not trust the reader enough to allow the reader to do the nurturing, to offer care and feeding to those seeds.

A poem, then, might be considered not as a thing on a page but as an interaction, a relationship. And the greater the trust and investment on both sides, the greater the love, the greater the joy. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her essay, “Imagination and Reality,” “Love is reciprocity, and so is art.”

But if the use of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” in Interstellar is any indication, I do not think Nolan understands that about poetry: that latent fertility of a poet’s words, that need for trust between poet and reader.

And perhaps he doesn’t even understand how much the visual, sensory building blocks that make up the cinematic experience can be like those potent word-seeds we find in poetry, visual and sensory things that truly bloom only when allowed to be planted in the mind and heart of the viewer.

For Nolan does not trust that Thomas’s words contain a potency that needs no explaining, no repetition.

Nor does he trust that his own visuals will tell the story he wants to tell.

Instead, he lectures through the mouths of his characters, telling us what to think. He harangues with a deafening, ever-present score, telling us what to feel.

Virginia Woolf in her brilliant and provocative essay, “How Should One Read a Book,” writes, “The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then – how sudden and complete is our immersion! . . . Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, . . . the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections.

But Nolan will not let that “hard,” “direct” “sensation” of Dylan’s brilliant words or of his own visuals reach the “profound depths” they have the capacity to do. Instead of being “centred and constricted,” instead of having the joy of “sensation” “spread[ing] in wider rings through our minds,” we have only a strident bombast, and in leaving the theater, we leave with very little that is ours. No relationship has been established, no seeds have been planted in the mind and heart and allowed to grow and delight us with their secret and expansive growth.

And it’s not that every piece of writing needs to be a poem to offer satisfaction. And not every film needs to offer the subtle delight of densely resonant visuals that tell their own story, sans explicit explanation. The non-fiction essay and the pulp novel offer their own delights as does a simple genre film - a rom-com or an action flick.

But the disappointment here is that Nolan seems to believe that any move towards complexity, away from a simple genre film, necessitates lengthy, direct explanation. We do need those lengthy explanations sometimes –say, in scientific essays and political editorials. But a fiction film is neither an essay nor an editorial - and should not complexity be broached differently, so as to make full use of the unique medium of film, so as to invite the viewer into joys of the cinematic relationship?

I try to imagine what 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been had Kubrick put explanations of the monolith into the characters' mouths. Would not the thing lose its potency? As it is, that monolith sits like a provocative weight in the mind, growing in density and meaning throughout the film and in the aftermath of the film, as I sit at home or in my car and ponder. It grows in meaning and significance exactly because it's given wholly to the viewer, and the viewer must interact with it, decide what it is, what it means. And so the monolith becomes personal. It's no longer exterior to me, but it sends ever "wider rings" of resonance through my mind - and it has, indeed, taken on such resonance in so many minds since 1968, that it appears again and again in the film world and elsewhere - and is now a part of our cultural cache, a thing, as Yeats might put it, of the Spiritus Mundi , containing multitudes, containing both Kubrick and his ideas and ourselves. Nolan ought to know all that, for his use of the monolith in figures of TARS and CASE gives him no excuse not to know it. The monolith needed no explanation to be powerful – in fact, it is powerful still because it lacks direct explanation.

Total ambiguity in the realm of art is, of course, frustrating – a slosh of vague symbols with no clues as to their meaning(s) and contributing to no discernible pattern can make a reader or a viewer feel betrayed.

There is the other problem, too, that the perhaps the artist is not actually offering a complex or satisfying set of meanings and ideas, and mulling over a work from from such an artist leaves us essentially empty handed.

My friend’s poems work because they do not remain, ultimately, ambiguous, and the ideas and meanings they contain, once discerned, satisfy the intellect and heart. It’s worth it to invest myself in the poetry he sends me because I know, as a reader, I will be rewarded for my trust, for my belief that the poem is worth investing myself and my time in.

Nolan’s film avoids ambiguity (perhaps) as it layers exposition upon exposition, assuming, apparently, that the complexity of the film is too much for the viewer, but in the end, ironically, the film’s central idea seems trite and unsatisfying, very little more than a shallow sentiment about love transcending time and space.

Nolan has the skill, I think, to offer something visually, viscerally arresting and resonant. But as of yet, particularly in recent years, I am less and less rewarded as a viewer – in large part because, even if the ideas are shallow, Nolan will not give the trust to the viewer that the viewer has given to the films. There is no deeply significant interaction between filmmaker and viewer.

Winterson writes of the interaction between artist and viewer, “The exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind; energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision. This is seductive and threatening.” And then she asks, “Can we make the return? Do we want to? Our increasingly passive diversions do no equip us, mentally, emotionally, for the demands that art makes.” Winterson, here, puts the pressure on us, as art-consumers, to offer ourselves to the art, to be consumed as much as we consume – if we want to be fully rewarded by the art.

Does Nolan’s work and his level of investment in me as a viewer merit my own return? I am increasingly uncertain that the answer is, “yes.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015


There's an attempt here to play up the idea of eccentricity: if a woman is single and doesn’t appear to want to marry, if she travels alone to far off places, if she travels down back alleys and to stockyards, if she wants a lock for her door, if she collects newspapers, if she takes photos of an injured person instead of standing around gawking like everyone else, if she isn’t freely open about her past, if she opts not to tell a shop-owner her name, she is deemed an oddity. And yet, I wonder, were a man to behave in the way she did, would he be called such an eccentric? Are any of those actions really so extremely erratic and bizarre?

While John Maloof claims in his film to want to make known to the world Vivian Maier’s photography, there is a queasy quality, a sort of TV tabloid element, permeating the whole endeavor, and the result is as similarly shallow as any episode of Hard Copy. Maier, as a subject, is an object to be poked and prodded and dissected; every small action or life detail that can be discovered is taken and exploded into suggestive significance. And people who clearly didn’t know her – who, for the most part, seem to think of her as a bizarre object themselves, and who seem to be quite pleased to be at the center of some attention – are paraded forth for comment.

And as pleased as the interviewees are to be on film, Maloof, himself, so constantly references his own purportedly solitary efforts to champion Maier, it is difficult to see much story here beyond his own self-interest (and as this NYT piece indicates, Maloof’s proprietary claim on Maier is dubious at best).

It is in spite of the film itself that we get glimpses of the complex human being that Maier must have been, and in those glimpses and hints, we must affirm that the irreducible complexity of Maier cannot be violated by the prods of petty filmmaking. She will not be reduced to “odd,” “eccentric,” “reclusive”; she cannot be contained by words like “spinster” or “nanny.” Her person remains hers and hers alone, locked, whole, dignified.

What remains, what transcends the film’s leering attempts at story-telling, is her photography. The images she captured invite us to engage in looking at the world in fresh ways – at beauty, tragedy, comedy, ugliness in unexpected places. And in this new looking, we turn with her, at her side, as fellow human beings, to look at the world she saw. I know nothing about her - and that is as it should be – but I am so grateful to be enriched by her eyes.

NOTE: It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that I owe gratitude to John Maloof for bringing Maier to my attention in the first place: had he not made this film, I am not at all sure I would have heard of her at all. And it is on the website he curates - - where her photography is most extensively accessible online. I am torn: I must be grateful for the film and yet its sensibilities are galling in the extreme. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Missing Picture, a film by Rithy Panh (2013)

"How do you revolt when all you've got are black clothes and a spoon?"

How indeed, when everything is stripped from you, is there space for anything but survival - and in the surviving, what is left but grief, guilt, loss? But here, now, Rithy Panh stages his revolt, as the only means to continue living. Here, using crude clay, as if using the very stuff of his being and of the flesh of those he buried, Panh builds images of what he lost - and builds it on his own terms.

Where the Khmer Rouge had seized photos to destroy the threat of the personal and of the individual and created new films to promote political ideology and lying glory, Panh seizes images in return, taking such filmed ideology, and frames it, transforms it: adding his clay figures -much more powerful figures than the clapping, smiling Pol Pot - adding his narration - much more powerful than the screaming of slogans - and reclaims his past, his color - not black but pink, yellow, and red - his family, his story, himself. The crude clay speaks while the black and white film of the regime merely mumbles incoherently.

Still, it would be a mistake to pretend Panh is not a haunted man. There is no healing, not really, not fully, even in such powerful artistic revolt. "It's not a picture of loved ones I seek, I want to touch them. Their voice is missing," he says.

Even his own voice, in the boy he was, is lost to himself: "It's the boy; he seeks me out. He wants to speak to me, but words are hard to find."

The words, the memories, the images are hard to find, and even "Mourning is difficult. There is no end to the burial. . . . There is the blood drenched earth. Their flesh is mine, so we are together."

And so the film ends, with the burial of a clay figure - buried, being buried, being buried - and it is a figure, a picture, I cannot easily forget.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I Was Born But . . . (YasujirĂ´ Ozu, 1932)

“Can your dads take out their teeth like my dad?”

Jostlings for superiority, shufflings for power, and contests of strength –  flurries of action that settle into hierarchies – these games are played out in the neighborhood spaces where boys vie for sparrows’ eggs and in the workspace where men vie for the biggest laugh from the boss. Who eventually becomes general, who becomes lieutenant general, and who becomes the one slain by an invisible bullet firing forth from the finger of another is as arbitrary and ridiculous as it is terribly serious.

The revelation that a father’s position relies on such arbitrary and demeaning ridiculousness disrupts two boys’ own sense of position and self. Indignant and grand, the boys – one virtuously, one reluctantly – lodge their protest, refuse their rice. Grandness can be maintained only so long though, and virtue yields to the pains of the stomach. In such acquiescence comes further revelation, or rather, more poignantly, self- recognition: the boys know that they and their father, in the end, walk in the same world, play the same games.

Is this tragedy? Is it comedy? It depends, perhaps, on one’s point of view.  Here, at any rate, Ozu’s light touch makes room for nuance, for both comedy and tragedy - and also, maybe more importantly, for tenderness. In the midst of the jostlings, the games, the indignation, and sad realizations, there is the comfort of a steaming kettle, of a parent’s affectionate gaze on a child’s sleeping face, of a plate of rice offered in peace, and of a look of understanding passed between father and son.