Friday, July 11, 2014

Life Itself, Life Elsewhere

I did not grow up with Elbert and Siskel, or have many a formative memory about discovering how love for film, or for a film, could be articulated to others. There was no informal education imparted to me by his criticism and yet, when news of Roger Ebert's death reached me last year, I quickly felt a little swish of emptiness and regret that his voice and project, so clear and encompassing, would just lose its place in present discourse. That, when people talked about movies, they would nevermore be as clear, personal, engaged and humble as Ebert could be when at his best, even when you disagreed with him. I feared that film criticism would suddenly turn into a circus of loud bickering on numbers, name checking, economic deals and technical form.

What one forgets is how influential Ebert really was, and I suspect one forgets because he didn't make it a central point of his career to give his readers a concrete idealization of what film should be and the direction it should take. He was both more humble and more ambitious than that. Instead of rummaging philosophical to answer the question 'what is film?' he wanted to understand what film, as an art form, tries to do, and understood that to have a critical conversation about a film that impresses our mind and heart was to ultimately have a critical conversation about our life, about what lies outside the film and stays with the audience.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Superhero Kink

In “X-Men: First Class”, shape-changing mutant Mystique grows up alongside telepath Charles Xavier and eventually yearns for a sexual relationship with him, even though Xavier considers their relationship sororal. Later, she is visibly aroused by Hank McCoy, the Beast who impresses her with strong, masculine hands in place of feet. When they have a private moment together, she lovingly strokes his syringe that he shows off, a formula to render them “normal” – alpha male Magneto passes by and comments, “Kinky.” When the sexually-frustrated Mystique ends up in Magneto's bed, she shifts into a couple of enticing forms before he requests she embrace her natural blue-scaled epidermis. Because the bulk of the film is dealing with the mutant awakening of these characters, it's also amusingly, relentlessly hormonal.

So where did all that heat go for “X-Men: Days Of Future Past”? Suddenly, Beast is Xavier's asexual manservant, apparently biding his time with shitty tech while Mystique travels the world. Magneto's eroticism has literally been bottled up and banished underground, while we learn we've been robbed of the affair that produced restless youth Quicksilver. And Professor X is a no-hope burn-out infatuated with needles not as a form of sexual foreplay, but because it gives him the fix that allows him to walk when, in fact, he has the ability to alter people's perception so well that they'll think he is walking.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lady Liberty's Bind

James Gray's films have in a way been exercises in reconstruction: whether it is to transport us to Brooklyn or Queens in the 80's, or to a more recent past in the same city, these reconstructions have not been only of a place or a milieu, but rather of conclaves. While great care is taken to give the viewer a sense of time and place, what renders his movies most realistic is the natural depiction of small groups of people, their associations and the way they frame an individual and his/her desires and choices made. The dramatic conflicts which  inhabit his films are not put forward by abstract societal or temporal stresses, but rather personal binds a character grasps in order to not get lost amid the chaos of his/her life, the chaos they conceive the world really to be. Yes, there is pathos in how individuals handle themselves in a world full of corruption, or amidst a war they don't understand, or when burdened by the memory of past failures and shortcomings, but the dramatic momentum, that force which gives itself raw and brings his movies to the height of tragedy, is among the beats of every discordant disconnection: a character's face, a viewer, realizing that the binds they chose to grasp are slowly tightening around them, trapping them with no way out without losing the very singularity they desired and fought to maintain.
In a book full of interviews with and about James Gray (I haven't read it yet-but if you got the dough...get it!), Jean Douchet writes:

          Plenty of filmmakers have 'ideas', but very few have a 'thought'. For instance,
          Quentin Tarantino has lots of ideas, and from time to time he has a thought,
          but it's not an immense one. On the other hand, it was clear from his very first
          film that James Gray was what we at CAHIERS called an auteur. You could
          immediately spot it...His work is marked by a highly emotional, sensitive and
          violent thought, channeled through a mise-en-scène that is rooted in classic
          auteur cinema. With each film, he returns to the same 'thought' over and over
          again: No matter what we do, our pasts are inescapable. It's the very definition
          of tragedy--the past, and the Gods, weigh upon us with all their might.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ex-Fest

If you really love movies, there exists that magic time, the moments before a film begins as it slowly fades in, and you have to guess exactly what you're watching. Seeing something contemporary behind generic multi-conglomerate logos takes a bit of the fun of it, but there's something powerful about catching a film from another era that gives no hints, shows no credits, and ominously utilizes a cinematic vocabulary of which you're unfamiliar. Not only must you guess the film, but you also have to get your bearings: someone may die, someone might fall in love, and the music that plays just might kick your ass. And for those brief moments before the title comes up, you just don't know how.

This is the feeling one experiences when they attend Exhumed Films' Ex-Fest, a wholly unique movie marathon that, for true film junkies, is the cinematic event of the year. For four straight years, Ex-Fest has been showcasing the strangest and most obscure of exploitation films' past, original prints teased with only the faintest of clues, the only guarantee being that the film would be from an earlier period, usually separate from the horror genre (the good people at Exhumed also put together the 24 Hour Horror-Thon each year around Halloween).

This year's fest took us around the globe, showed us the heart of darkness, the ecstasy of bad behavior and the exoticism of peculiar deviance. Exhumed's Horror-Thon sells out each year, but that's not the case for Ex-Fest, which makes no promises about what you'll see. The recipe allows for mass walkouts and some disappointed people hoping for a more filtered bout of exploration. You're not going to see Arnold blow off someone's face in this festival, but you will see George Kennedy cradle a shotgun while in a lizard suit, which he did in last year's “Radioactive Dreams”. And you won't catch Sharon Stone disrobing to seduce her prey, but you just might see Carol Kane seduce... well, read on to find out.

The first film was “The Eagle's Shadow” (aka "Snake In The Eagle's Shadow"), which begins with a good look at the martial arts from its star, Jacky (sic) Chan. This Yuen Woo-Ping-directed fight film, which I believe I saw once on Univision during a late night, finds a very young Chan as a bumbling disciple to a borderline-magic old man, who must then recruit him in a struggle between warring kung fu clans. This is very much gang warfare on a micro scale, carried on no less gangsta than it would be in a film like “Boyz N The Hood”. Of course, there are the typical Chan-quality Gags And Stunts, but the one standout moment is a brawl between a kitten and a rattlesnake. Like Donald Sterling, these films are Of Their Era, which means that some people on the set willingly broke some rules to get things on the screen. So if you're seeing something dangerous, chances are it's at least partly real. There is a real snake and a real cat in these shots, and while the movie employs some clever editing, there's no doubt during some moments the production had a real cat face down an actual snake.