Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a note concerning this blog

I moved my "recent links & discoveries" updates to Google+ (there's already a fair bit of stuff posted that I never linked to here just click the old text on the sidebar and it'll take you there).

Due largely to the fact that it allows pictures and comments to accompany each link, Google+ is simply the better format for this kind of thing. Plus, moving it decluttered my sidebar (who knows, maybe I'll fill the space with something down the road).

To anyone who doesn't like the change, simply send fifty thousand rubles to my Paypal account and it shall be undone.

yup, that's me

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A brief conversation with myself about Midnight in Paris

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Yes. It was very entertaining. You?"


"You can't be serious. Why?"

"For one thing, Hemingway was a complete cut-out, a cliche of a man ripped straight from an encyclopedia of famous quotations and combined with a few brief biographical details. The whole era Allen conjured up smacked of forgery."

"Well, you're right. It wasn't a documentary."

"That's not what I meant..."

"I know. But you're missing the point. Hemingway was a cliche because he was cut-out. Not from a book of quotations but from Owen Wilson's character's imagination. He was Wilson's idea of what Hemingway was like, which was based on the popular perception -- the stereotype."

"One can make that argument, sure, but then everything in the film that takes place in the past is instantly beyond criticism. One can simply respond with, "But that's how Owen Wilson imagined it!" And besides, I reject your premise. We're not supposed to assume that what takes place in 1920s Paris is part of his imagination. It's all supposed to be real, which is why the private investigator -- the one who's trailing him throughout -- gets trapped in time at the end."


"No, definitely. And the whole conceit of the film is cliche in its execution. When Owen Wilson takes his fiancée out to have an excursion in the magic pumpkin, I said to myself, I sure hope the vehicle shows up since it's completely standard for it not to in this situation. But of course it didn't. The whole scene was stale from the outset."

"So what if he was using a well worn cliche? That particular device has been around forever. He was just using it as a playful gimmick."

"So what? The entire movie boils down to a cliche: the grass is always greener, nostalgia is naive because people's imagined idea of the past is always tainted by the rosy tint of retrospect, etc. It's bad enough for the film to boil itself down to this platitude, but then the ending..."

"You're the one boiling the film down to that! The film..."

"No, let me finish. The final moments contradict Allen's very own message. Isn't the ending a kind of nostalgia of its own? A movie-tinted view of relationships which suggests that finding someone who enjoys the same small things you do -- walking in Paris at night in the rain, for example -- somehow equates to love and compatibility? That's quite silly, of course. And it turns Owen Wilson's character into a type, with his fiancée and her family set as his type's opposite. The entire world is therefore divided into 'people who enjoy Paris in the rain' and 'people who don't', and the film seems to suggest that, as long as the two groups avoid romantic contact with one another, happiness awaits."

"There's more to it than that. The types are indicative of subtler things. Those who like the small, simple pleasures of life, for example, and those who don't."

"I hardly see much difference. And even if there was one the latter category of people is associated with shallow, cynical, self absorbed Republicans, which is, once again, reductive. Not to mention an easy target for Allen's audience."

"Well, as far as the contradiction goes, I'm not sure what you said even matters because the film openly sides with Wilson's character."

"Of course it matters. And besides, that only proves my point. Obviously the film has no idea what it's trying to say! It's just feeble entertainment for people who like to feel smart by laughing at the all the in-jokes. And, what's worse, the in-jokes are actually quite depressing to anyone who knows more than the most superficial things about Gertrude Stein's coterie, to say nothing of the Belle Epoque!"

"Wow. I wish you could hear what you sound like to me right now... Anyway, do you think Wilson's character would have had the same reaction to the Parisian woman he met -- the one he walks off with in the end -- had she been average looking, or less?"


"OK. Then that means the film can't be as reductive as you say."

"No, it means that it might even be more reductive, just in a different way. Plus, his wife was attractive too, so I don't think there's any reason to factor in their appearances. What differentiates them is the type of person they're considered to be in the film's schema."

"I suppose."

"As far as movies that actually have something to say about relationships go, Certified Copy is a hundred times better than Midnight in Paris. Same goes for Andrew Haigh's Weekend."

"But Midnight in Paris isn't really a film about relationships."

"What's it about?"


"Wasn't Adrian Brody a riot as Salvador Dali?"

Top: Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010); Bottom: Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Film Moments 2011: Addendum

Had I seen The Mill and the Cross in time, it would have easily made my list of favorite theatrical experiences of 2011 (probably as my number one). I can't overstate how much it's a film that was made to be seen in the theater, one of the handful of rare works, like Jacques Tati's Playtime, that loses so much when viewed on a small screen that it very nearly becomes something altogether different.

the road to calgary
The Procession to Calgary (Bruegel, 1564)

111the mill and the cross majewski
"The Mill and the Cross" (Majewski, 2011)

Majewski's film continuously skates delicately on a line dividing sublimity from the synthetic (indeed, the friend I saw it with thought it crossed over a few times), and when I watched the film a second time at home, I noticed that television tilted the images a fraction too far in the wrong direction. (The experience of watching it this way only a handful of days after I'd seen it in the theater was such a letdown that I couldn't even finish watching it.) The film was a little less vibrant and the CGI looked off -- the foreground and background were noticeably two separate layers in a way that felt accidental. There is something similarly fake looking about the film when seen in the theater (on one level this can't be helped; the perspective in Bruegel's original painting is off), but the difference is that the images in the theater -- whether because of their size, quality, or both -- look strange and layered in a purposefully unrealistic way. Everything works together to create a world that's utterly real and unreal at the same time, and Bruegel's painting is fully embraced as part of the artifice. During home viewing everything felt a little too much like green screen run amok, and I had a hard time getting absorbed into the film, which is a problem, especially when the film's conceit revolves around being absorbed into a painting. (Of course my reaction might have something to do with the fact that television was my second viewing. And it's possible that the experience would be significantly improved by HD.)

I haven't found any good writing on The Mill and the Cross, probably because it's more of a visual spectacle (in the best sense of the word) than it is anything else, something that must be undergone. Roger Ebert said it best when he opened his review with, "Here is a film before which words fall silent." Funny, though, that he then went on to write a review...

the mill and the cross18

the mill and the cross16

the mill and the cross14

the mill and the cross7

the mill and the cross10

the mill and the cross6

the mill and the cross5

Many of the beautifully lit interior shots eclipse the exteriors:

the mill and the cross13

the mill and the cross9

the mill and the cross11

the mill and the cross12

the mill and the cross 02

the mill and the cross17

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The following images, taken from the film's website, show the sharpness and vibrancy lacking in the captures above:

4 THE MILL & THE CROSS dir.Lech Majewski

6 THE MILL & THE CROSS dir.Lech Majewski

8 THE MILL & THE CROSS dir.Lech Majewski

* * *

A nine minute "making of" video can be viewed HERE.

Monday, February 20, 2012

two poems

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

                                                           —Bertolt Brecht, "Questions From a Worker Who Reads"

colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht, questions from a worker who reads
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
colossal youth, pedro costa, brecht
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)

Friday, February 10, 2012

the troublesome moment

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.


Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone.


After custom has successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, this supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.


The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which convention is the shepherd.

The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)

Text from Tocqueville's Democracy in America. (Altered, abridged, and with the original intent perverted.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mind Over Matter: Félix Fénéon on Trial

Among my favorite things are instances when people use their imagination to shift or transform reality in some small way, usually in their favor. One of the greatest examples of this is Robert Desnos reading palms at a concentration camp in the 1940s (previous post), an effort that surely couldn't have been any more desperate performed with the utmost naturalness.

What follows is another example of imaginative magic, also with high stakes.

* * *

The text, up until the next three asterisks, was collaged from Alastair Brotchie's Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life (2011); Roger Shattuck's The Banquet Years (1955); The Anarchist Encyclopedia; Julian Barnes' review of Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines; and Wikipedia.

Félix Fénéon mugshot, trial, anarchist
Félix Fénéon's mugshot

In the summer of 1894 began the mass trial of thirty ill-assorted men accused of anarchist leanings and treasonable acts. Among them was the prominent literary figure Félix Fénéon, an early champion of the impressionists. In the end, only three common criminals were found guilty from among the thirty so-called anarchists. (One of them, a butcher's apprentice, had been accused of stealing a pork chop from his employer.) This was not a little to do with Fénéon's phlegmatic and expressionless ripostes from the dock, which reduced the proceedings to a simple farce.

"Are you an anarchist, M. Fénéon?"
"I am a Burgundian born in Turin."
"Your police file extends to one hundred and seventy pages. It is documented that you were intimate with the German terrorist Kampfmeyer."
"The intimacy cannot have been great as I do not speak German and he does not speak French." (Laughter in courtroom.)
"It has been established that you surrounded yourself with Cohen and Ortoz."
"One can hardly be surrounded by two persons; you need at least three." (More laughter.)
"You were seen conferring with them behind a lamppost!"
"Can you tell me, Monsieur le Président, which side of a lamp post is its back?" (Loud, prolonged laughter. Judge calls for order.)

Part of the evidence against him was that a police search of his office had turned up a vial of mercury and a matchbox containing 11 detonators. Fénéon added to the history of implausible excuses by claiming that his father, who had recently died and was therefore unavailable to corroborate his evidence, had found them in the street.

"You could not have found them in the street!"
"The judge asked me how it was that rather than take the detonators to the ministry, I had not thrown them out the window. This demonstrates that one could find them on public roads." (Laughter.)
"Here is a bottle of mercury which we also found in your office. Do you recognize it?"
"It's a similar bottle indeed. I do not attach the slightest importance."
"You know that mercury is used to make a dangerous explosive, mercury fulminate."
"It also serves to make thermometers, barometers and other instruments." (Laughter)

Charged with illegally carrying a firearm, the judge asked:

"You know you had on you everything you needed to commit a murder?"

Fénéon replied:

"Yes, but I also had on me everything I needed to commit a rape."

The climax of the trial came when the government attorney unwisely opened in the courtroom a package which had been sent to him containing, not explosives, but excrement. He asked for a recess to wash his hands. Fénéon's voice rose over the assembly: "not since Pontius Pilate has a judge washed his hands with such ostentation." In England, Wilde's witticisms earned him hard labor, but in Paris Fénéon's had him acquitted.

felix feneon, oscar wilde, toulouse lautrec, la goulue dancing
La Goulue dancing, by Toulouse-Lautrec (1895)
Oscar Wilde is the figure in the foreground on the left wearing the light overcoat; Fénéon is the man in the bottom right corner

* * *

Law and Order were at a loss as to how to proceed against someone who refused to acknowledge their authority. It was as if none other than Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty had been put on trial, a very dangerous proposition for any institution whose credibility rests on how seriously it's taken.

"Why do you sit out here all alone?" said Alice, not wishing to begin an argument.
"Why, because there's nobody with me!" cried Humpty Dumpty. [...] Here's a question for you. How old did you say you were?"
Alice made a short calculation, and said "Seven years and six months."
"Wrong!" Humpty Dumpy exclaimed triumphantly. "You never said a word like it!"
"I thought you meant 'How old are you?" Alice explained.
"If I'd meant that, I'd have said it," said Humpty Dumpty. [...] When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

paul signac, felix feneon, portrait, painting
Paul Signac, Portrait of Félix Fénéon (1890)

James R. Mellow, in an article for The New York Times, pointed out the retroactive irony of Signac's portrait given Fénéon's gesture in the painting and the fact that he was later arrested for the bombing of a restaurant in which the bomb was placed in a flowerpot.