Buffalo Boy (Mua len trau)

Thirty or forty miles east of the city of Ellensburg, Washington, Interstate 90 bumps into the Columbia River. The highway runs effortlessly across those mighty waters, comes up against a wall of rock on the other side, then bears left and climbs the eastern side of the river's gorge. The climb is steep, as I recall, and once you make the summit the road swings to the right and continues on east across the desert.

At the place where the highway meets the western banks of the Columbia there is a sparse cluster of buildings known as Vantage.

This particular intersection of river and highway sticks in my mind because when I was a squirt my family used to pile into the car once a year and make the drive from Seattle to Spokane to visit relatives, and so once a year I would find myself in the back seat, peering over the car door at the cluster of buildings called Vantage. I didn't think all that much about the place until we were passing through it one time and my dad told me that the original town of Vantage was actually somewhere underwater, down there under the bridge. Some years before a dam had been built down river, raising the water level and covering the original town.

I can remember picturing what the town must have looked like down there. Trout swimming lazily through barred windows at the underwater bank. Long, swaying grasses clinging to the tops of Texaco pumps.

They say memories are best imprinted when associated with strong emotions. Maybe the reason this memory so strongly imprinted itself on me is because at the time I was told this story, puberty was starting to rise around me, threatening to drown the little hamlet of my childhood. Or maybe it just bugged the hell out of me, the thought of a whole town being under water.

I have what you'd call an organized mind. In my view, dry land should be over here, under my feet, and water should be over there, at a distance suitable for scenic viewing. And so you can imagine I would be disturbed by an image like this:

That's not a house-boat. That's a house. On stilts. The water around it is the Mekong River in full flood. In the dry season that would be a flat plain covered with rice fields, but in the wet season...

That image utterly creeps me out. It's a production shot from "Buffalo Boy", a 2004 Vietnamese film about a peasant boy who is given the task of finding some decent grass for his family's two water buffaloes to eat. Not such an easy job in the rainy season of the Mekong Delta.

The flood waters cover everything, and then just sit there. Decent fodder rots, becoming inedible except in the most desperate of circumstances. It's a day-by-day, hour-by-hour struggle to lead your buffalo through the vast expanse of water, anywhere from ankle to chest deep, often deeper, in a mostly vain attempt to find high spots where edible grass might still be found.

This is one of those films that exists to define in its own determined way the mystical cinematic term mise-en-scene. Imagine living in a world of waist-high water swirling with rotting vegetation. What do you do for food? Where do you sleep? Make love? What do you do with your father's corpse when he dies? The movie itself is that world -- the images are beautiful, haunting, creepy. They drag at you, like the pressure you feel against your legs as you slog through the shallow waters of a lake.

It takes no effort of the imagination at all, while watching "Buffalo Boy", to feel you have been invited into a remarkable visual metaphor. This is Art You Don't Have To Work At. The art of the film sits down next to you, pours you a cup of tea, and the two of you spend the next couple of hours going over together what it means to live a human life.

This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and it reminds me, once again, why I started on this project of hunting up obscure DVDs on the shelves of my local Artsy Fartsy Video Store. There are so many treasures out there you are most likely never going to see. Unless you go looking for them, of course.

When you find one, it's like fresh grass on a high spot surrounded by swill.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The President's Last Bang

In 1961, the government of South Korea's Second Republic was overthrown in a military coup led by Major General Park Chunghee. For the next 18 years he dragged South Korea into the 20th Century through a combination of exuberant economic policies and an even more exuberant exercise of raw, authoritarian power. In October of 1979, he was assassinated at a private dinner party by the Director of the Korean CIA.

"The President's Last Bang" chronicles the events of that October evening in 1979.

I'm not going to say much about this movie, except to say that it's well worth seeing, though you should probably have the stomach for watching blood pooling on marble floors, and a liking for stories wherein the best laid plans of mice and men unravel with increasing alacrity on account of simple, straightforward ass-hattery. The film looks great, has some wonderful sight gags (probably some good verbal gags too, but since it's in Korean with English subtitles, who can tell?), and it takes a close look at a subject I never realized I was interested in:

"But what's it really like to be caught up in a coup d'etat?"

Watching this movie, I found myself sinking into a deeper and deeper consideration of my fear of death by ass-hattery, which I would describe this way: the fear of knowing during that patch of time between the moment you discover you are certainly going to die, and the moment when you actually do die, that the reason you are going to die is because some ass-hat did something indescribably stupid or inept.

I think it's a little bit like the special fear many people have of being eaten by a shark. At the moment when you know you are about to die, you don't want to be reminded that you are a helpless piece of meat.

You want to be spread out there on the pavement, breathing your last out after having jumped in front of a bus in order to save a small child's life, or be sprawled there on the grimy linoleum of your local fast food eatery, bleeding out your last after having wrestled the Maniac With The Automatic Rifle to the ground, knocking him unconscious and saving untold numbers of lives.

As opposed to being a member of the Korean CIA standing around the Secret Presidential Retreat, minding your own beeswax, the night the ass-hat director of your agency decides to assassinate the President, mostly because he's just fed up.

Actually, this movie is really, really interesting in a lot of different ways but I don't feel like writing it all up right now. I'm a baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad movie critic. Just rent the damned thing and watch it. And don't forget to check out the extra feature interview with the director on the DVD.

He's the guy I want to show me around the next time I'm in Seoul.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


Because I am a person of enormous generosity (this is well-known), and because I had a few extra bucks at the time, and because I wanted to see them myself, this last Christmas I gave a couple of my friends a boxed set of 8 DVDs called "Horatio Hornblower: Collector's Edition". I watched the first one with them ("The Duel"), and then borrowed the next three and have just finished watching those.

For those of us attracted to the Nautical Lifestyle, I cannot recommend these Hornblower DVDs highly enough. The films are from a TV Miniseries by A&E and so things we might call "production values" are necessarily a bit lower than what you see in a major Hollywood motion picture like "Master and Commander", but they are plenty high enough. Oh, there is the occasional shot of a sea battle where you can tell by the way the water behaves you are looking at models, but that's only occasionally. Most of the time the long shots of the fleet underway are plenty hope-and-gloryish.

But the real value here is the story-telling, and the acting.

This is great stuff. I've seen four of them so far, the first being the weakest in my opinion but only because I don't really care for the one guy irrationally having it in for the other guy type story. But even so, that one and the rest are genuinely stirring in all the ways we expect to be stirred as subscribers to the Nautical Agenda.

So all you Hornblower fans out there, and you Patrick O'Brian nuts too, rent or buy these Hornblower DVDs, then pop some popcorn or open a few granola bars, and...Crack on!

Like smoke & oakum.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Werckmeister Harmonies

Not for the first time, I wish I were a trained musician.

I did take Music Appreciation in elementary school, though. And studied the saxophone for a while, and, even more briefly, the violin. I remember being astonished to discover that flats were sharps, and vice-versa, only with different names. This bothered me. Everything should have its own name, I thought. Why give the same note two names? And who would ever think up such a silly system?

A guy named Werckmeister, that's who. And what he has to do with "Werckmeister Harmonies", well, I'll leave that up to you to decide.

This movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, in black-and-white, in Hungarian (with English subs, of course), and -- I just read this from a guy who claims to have counted them himself and I didn't so I can't say he's right, but I certainly believe him -- there are only 37 shots in the entire film. If you do your math, you will realize that at least some of the shots in this film must last for a very, very long time. Your math is correct. No need to show your work.

While watching this film, it occurred to me that a Hollywood remake of this thing (not bloody likely) would probably be called "Hungarian Men Walking" inasmuch as a number of those lengthy shots are of a man, or of groups of men, just walking through the town where this story takes place.

It's odd, but just the other day I recommended Dhalgren to my nephew, and while watching this movie I thought: this is a bit like Dhalgren in Hungary. Maybe "Werckmeister Harmonies" is D-sharp to Dhalgren's E-flat. If you liked Dhalgren, you might just like this strange movie. I did, more or less inexplicably, except maybe for the fact that I loved Dhalgren.

Not that they are in any way the same, of course. Except for the ways in which they are.

A young man, not really simple-minded I don't think, but certainly simple-souled, lives in a town in Hungary. He's a helpful fellow, doing all sorts of chores for people in town. He's curious, and full of optimism, but not stupidly so. He seems to understand that life is difficult, and certain things need to be done even though we wish we didn't have to do them. Still, none of that is any reason not to be friendly and helpful to people if you can be.

And then late one night a tractor slowly comes into town pulling a very large trailer -- the size of double-wide house trailer, only the trailer is made of corrugated steel. The tractor creeps its way through the darkened streets until it arrives in the market square where it stops and leaves the trailer.

The next day, our optimistic young man goes to the market square, buys a ticket, enters the trailer to see the featured exhibit: a large, dead whale.

And then things start to go wrong.

Look, I'm not going to tell you to see this film. Well, yes, I am: See this film. But only see it if you're open to a 2 hour and 15 minute movie about people walking through their town and then a whale in a trailer shows up. I'm not saying that's what this movie is about, but I think just like one of those cut-out silhouettes of kids showing how tall (high?) you have to be before you can get on a carnival ride, you have to be open to seeing the kind of movie I just described for you to eventually be glad you rented and watched this thing.

It's beautiful. I loved it. Have an open mind.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Beautiful Boxer

My local Hollywood Video lets me rent DVDs for five days. Since I rented "Beautiful Boxer" four days ago, I've watched it four times.

I don't think I've ever swooned over a movie. Wait. Let me think about it for a minute... no, I'm pretty sure I've never swooned.


Okay, part of it is that I have lately become a tremendous fan of Thai movies. Another part is that this movie is based on a true story about a Thai kid who knew from just about as early a time as you can know these things that he wanted to be a girl. He came from a poor agrarian family and he had no idea that such a thing could ever be possible, but then one day he met a man who had had an operation...

But even so, there was the problem of money. How was a poor kid from a rural northern province going to afford such a thing as an operation to change him into a woman?

And then he made another quite remarkable discovery. Quite by accident, he found out he had an astonishing gift for Muay Thai, the martial arts sport we know as Thai Kick Boxing.

Soon he found a master to train him in it -- or, actually, it's more like the master found him  -- and eventually the kid went on to become a national sensation, finally earning a spot on fight cards in city of Bangkok itself. Until finally, one day, he had earned enough money for his operation.

This movie is so hot. And so beautiful to look at.

Which brings me to the final reason for my swoon: the guy who plays the kid who grows up to be a woman is not only physically gorgeous, when he fights... well... watch him closely when he does. You will see what I mean. Muay Thai is not just violence, you see, it's one of the national art forms of Thailand.

I'm not actually a fan of Asian Fight Movies. They've become the Far East equivalent of overproduced Hollywood special effects disaster epics.

Yeah, yeah, the guy can fly through the air at about two miles an hour and then deliver a kick that could knock your face into next week. I've seen it, ya know?

But watching this movie... I'm pretty sure I could become a major fan of Muay Thai.

The movie is inspiring, of course: weirdo kid dreams of making an impossible thing come true, he perseveres, fights for what he wants, finds a way to get it, and... well you know the drill. Okay, maybe it sounds like the "Karate Kid". Only it ain't. Believe me.

But that story, while actually pretty interesting and well-done, is not really what I love about this movie. No, what I love is that there's a grace to it that absolutely captured my heart. Possibly this is because Thailand is about 95% Buddhist, I think, and the influence of that religion is woven throughout the culture and so is everywhere in this film. I've noticed this sort of thing in all the Thai movies I've seen lately and it probably accounts for my developing love of that country's cinema. I'm sure there are some Thai movies that don't have this grace, but the ones I have seen certainly do.

And all of this has led me to educate myself on the current, ongoing political crisis over there. Stupid politicians. Gosh, I hope nobody gets hurt. They seem like such wonderful and gracious people...

I have to return this DVD tomorrow. I think I'll start shopping around to see if there's a boxed set of DVDs called "The Films of Thailand", or something. And if can't find one, I guess I'll just have to make one up for myself. This is now my dream which I'm pretty sure I won't have to take up kick-boxing or have any sort of operation to achieve.

Oh, and by the way... did you know that in the native language the word "thai" means "freedom"? I sure didn't. You start to pick these things up, I guess, when you get hooked on cinema from far-away lands.

Watch a

[Netflix, B & N, ]

History of Violence

There's a wonderful little moment that occurs in good story-telling: you're sitting there watching the movie or whatever, thinking to yourself, "Okay (sigh) I know how this is going to go", and then something happens that makes you sit up... oh, my, didn't expect that... and suddenly your view of one or more of the characters, or of the story itself, drastically changes.

This moment is known as a "perception shift". As in, your perception of what is happening, or of what a character is about, suddenly shifts.

Readers or viewers love these moments. Writers kill for them. When they actually work, I mean. Just throwing in some new story element or bit of character behavior won't do the trick. We have to feel like the world of the movie (or the book, or whatever) has suddenly been believably and intriguingly overturned.

I haven't seen the graphic novel upon which "History of Violence" is based. And if I am familiar enough with a DVD to know that I eventually want to see it, I usually try to avoid reading the liner notes on its box.

So what all of that means is that I was perfectly set-up for the perception shift that comes within the first half-hour of "History of Violence", and I was quite delighted by it when it came. There I was thinking I knew where this thing was going, and actually beginning to think that I really didn't feel like watching that movie again and so maybe I would just pull the plug on it, when bang!

Very nice perception shift.

This is not "The Best Movie of the Year" as one of the quoted reviews on the DVD's box maintains, but it's a good movie nevertheless. Or... let me put it this way:

I don't know how you feel about perception shifts, but when I encounter one that is well-executed it really makes my day. Actually, I think I'm kind of a p.s. junkie. I really need that feeling of the world sliding sideways. When I get it, it's enough to make me forgive a movie for whatever flaws it might otherwise have.

And so: I forgive this movie. Whole-heartedly.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


Let's be real about this. Just because you see a movie about something, doesn't mean you know anything about that thing. In my experience, there's only one way to know anything about anything and that's to experience the thing itself. The rest is just writing.

I've never been in the military -- I wouldn't be allowed -- and so obviously I've never been in a war. Whatever I say here does not have anything to do with what it's really like to be a United States Marine, nor does it have anything to do with what it's like to be in a war.

Our "Jarhead" hero, Swofford, is a 20 year-old who in 1989 for some reason we aren't told decides to become a Marine instead of going to college. After training, our boy is selected to be a sniper and he thereupon learns that snipers, unlike the Lone Gunmen we all want to believe in, work in teams of two. One member of the team is called the spy and the other is called the shooter. The spy locates the target, supplies range and wind speed information to the shooter, then when all the pieces of the shot are in place, the spy says slowly: "Fire... fire... fire."

On the third "fire", the shooter pulls the trigger.

There's a famous Hollywood bio-pic about Vincent van Gogh called "Lust for Life". Heh. Movies about artists. They generally suck, in my view, though that is not entirely the fault of the filmmakers. We have so much crap in our heads about what it means to be an artist. If I were tasked to make a movie about an artist, I would leave everything about him being an artist out of it. A guy's art is pollution when it comes to considering his life.

Or, if I were tasked to make a movie about an artist but not about any artist in particular, I would make a movie about an artist who works in a medium we wouldn't normally think of when we think of art. For example, the art of shooting from a great distance your country's enemies in the head.

"Lust for Life" is about an artist who ultimately sees himself as a failure. He cuts an ear off and eventually kills himself, after all. "Jarhead" is similarly about an artist who fails to find fulfillment in his work, but there is a difference in the manner in which these two artists see themselves as failures, of course, and this difference is accounted for thusly: van Gogh actually gets to paint some pictures; Swofford never once gets to shoot anybody in the head.

"Lust for Life" is Hollywood bullshit, essentially unwatchable on account of first-degree shlock. "Jarhead", however, is the best account I've ever seen of what it feels like to fail in your art.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Turtles Can Fly

How perilous is your life?

Mine, not so much. I woke up this morning, rolled out of bed. A little over a week ago I pulled a tendon or a muscle or something just below my knee and I still have some soreness there. I might have reinjured myself this morning if I hadn't been careful getting out of bed, but I was, so I didn't.

I might have fallen in the shower, I suppose, but it didn't occur to me that I might. On the way to work, it was blustery and cold. My eyes watered briefly. I might have stepped off the curb into the path of an oncoming car maybe. But I didn't. I'm fairly careful about intersections since I listen to a pocket radio through ear-buds and I do think every so often that I might get distracted by what I'm listening to and mindlessly step into traffic.

But I didn't, of course. Not today anyway.

I rode an elevator up to the office. There is a rumor among the tenants in the building that some years ago an elevator technician was cut in half by one of the elevators. It was stuck partway between floors and the guy was crawling into it when, without warning, it started moving. But it worked just fine today. It stopped at my floor just like it was supposed to and so I didn't give it a second thought. My computer might have exploded in my face, I suppose, but it didn't. It didn't even occur to me that it would.

Later, in the evening, I might have choked to death on a bit of pork chop and no one would have known about it except my cat until tomorrow sometime. But I took small bites and chewed them well and as it turned out I was never in danger of choking to death. The thought of it never even crossed my mind.

There is so much peril in the world, and so little of it is owned by me. This in spite of the fact that I live in a city that has been attacked twice already. I recall the few times I've actually found myself in grave peril as occasions of great drama. And I do worry fairly often, when I'm waiting on the platform for a train, that some maniac will push me under an oncoming train. I always without fail stand away from the edge of the platform and lightly grip an iron column or stairway banister as trains enter and leave the station. But I have never been pushed. Never been mugged. Never come close to being run down by a speeding cab.

It could happen, of course. It could happen any moment. And something will happen to me someday and then it will be curtains. But in the meantime I live a privileged life, relatively free not just of the fear of peril but also of peril itself. I often think it wouldn't be the perilous things that kill you; it would be the constant awareness of being surrounded by peril. All the stress and the tension. But that's the mind of an early 21st century American white guy talking, who has a job and some money in the bank and no actual shooting war going on in his neighborhood. I think, as an actual fact, in other parts of the world, it's actually the perilous things that actually kill you.

Okay, let's be real. Seeing a movie about a group of children living in Iraqi Kurdistan in the days just before the American invasion isn't the same as being one of those children. Because I have seen "Turtles Can Fly" doesn't mean I have the slightest real notion of what the lives of those children might be like. Still, "Turtles" is an amazing treatise on the subject of the day-to-day living of a perilous life, so perhaps there are one or two things I can learn from it. For example, how others are forced to scratch out, literally, a living, inasmuch as these children earn their keep by digging up Genuine First Class American land mines and using them as currency with local merchants. In some instances, bringing home the bacon means bringing home your hands or your arms or your legs or what's left of your best friend in a burlap bag.

Oh, and I forgot to mention this earlier: I brushed my teeth a bit too vigorously this morning and may have bruised a gum. Wouldn't want to short-change myself on my list of perils.

But lest I drive you away from seeing a movie that you really must see: no children were blown up in the making of this film.

Most -- not all -- but most of the violence has already happened before the movie starts, and not all of that violence had to do with munitions. And really, honestly, this is not a movie about violence to children, though some violence does happen to some children.

It's a movie about a kid nick-named "Satellite" who is your classic "operator". He knows more at 14 about running a business than most of New York City's Financial District could ever hope to know, even by the time retirement rolls around. If Satellite's resemblance to a pushy, teen-aged Bill Gates (in baggy, second-hand jeans and thick glasses that may have once belonged to someone else) is not intentional, it's certainly serendipitous.

He is your standard geeky Kurdish kid who has managed to garner an astonishing monopoly on the local satellite dish installation game. As the American invasion looms, the people in Satellite's village/refugee camp are starving for news and are willing to do just about anything to persuade Satellite to do business with them. He's a kid who knows how much power he has, and knows how he ought to use it -- for both good and for evil, it turns out. He is the one, after all, who hires out the village refugee children to dig up land mines from the fields of local farmers. But he is also the one who takes responsibility for the welfare of the refugee kids -- a job the adults of the village can't seem to manage.

But never mind. Satellite is only doing what he has to do to keep himself and the other children alive until the Americans show up. He reveres us, possibly because he feels his business won't really take off until The Mighty Dollar hits town. It's a shame that by the time the Americans do come, all of the promise of their coming doesn't matter so much to young Satellite anymore.

In many ways, this is a very sweet movie but it is also, in the end, a very painful one too, though probably not in the way I might have led you to think. It's wonderful film, but I'm not going to lie to you... it's going to hurt you some before it gets done with you. Rent it and watch it anyway. Not because it's "good for you" or anything. Rent it and watch it for Satellite.

I guarantee you: He's one of those characters you'll want to carry around in your pocket for a while after the movie is over.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The World (Shijie)

Some films are so good, so masterful, you can't hardly find a way to start talking about them. Zhang Ke Jia's "The World" is like that, though I should warn you: some people think it's crap.

I suppose if you were trying to find a place to start, you could first talk about the plot. It mostly takes place in a theme park (that actually exists -- in a suburb of Beijing) which features something like 100 scale models of various man-made and natural wonders of the world. Its motto is: "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." The place is called World Park and the film follows the lives of a group of young Chinese boys and girls who have moved to Beijing from the country and found work at the park.

Okay, that's not a very promising start, I guess.

What if I told you the film was gorgeous to look at? That you could watch the film over and over and each time find yourself waiting impatiently to get a glimpse of images that are still with you from previous viewings?

That's a little better, I guess, depending on how strongly you respond to the visual elements of film.

Maybe for all you science-fiction fans out there, I could start with how this movie reminds you that all of those horrific, dystopian worlds of the future aren't really "out there" at all. They are here -- and I mean "here" as in "not just in China" -- and they are now -- and I mean "now" as in, well, "right now".

Try to imagine what it would be like if Orwell hadn't written 1984. Try to imagine if it had been written by Lawrence Welk instead.

Have you ever seen any of those repackaged reruns of his show from the, what, I dunno, 60s or 70s? One of the public stations here in New York broadcasts it every Saturday in the early evening. Occasionally as I'm flipping through the channels, I will come across it and find myself inexplicably unable to avert my remote. Jesus God, what a horror. It's not like watching a car wreck, it's like being in a car wreck. You can feel your human soul being sucked right out of you. You just stare at the screen, slack-jawed, and feel your life-force draining away. Eventually the horror builds to a crescendo, you can't bear it any more, and somehow your fingers find a way to change the channel.

Okay, so imagine the soul-sucking family entertainment horror of all that, add to it the police-state mentality of 1984, and you've pretty much got the world of "The World".

Except it sneaks up on you. At first you think you are just watching a story about these kids who work at an incredibly shlocky theme park, but then the truth of what you are seeing slowly begins to dawn...

"Wait a minute... This world isn't so different from the one I actually live in..."

Fortunately, and this is one of the reasons why the film is so good, it never actually says any of that to you. I just creates the world these people live in and does it so well that you are glad to enter it. But once you are inside it, it all begins to feel way too horribly familiar.

And while it's doing all of that, of course, it's also showing you what life is like in China, or at least in Beijing, as the People's Republic takes its great leap forward into the century of globalization. That in itself makes the movie worth watching, if you are as fascinated as I am by that sort of thing. But as I say, it is way more than just that.

If you are more or less happy with the world you are living in, if you are fond of the world as you presently know it, you probably won't like this movie very much. It will probably bore you, or annoy you with its 137 minute length.

But if something feels a bit off to you about the way things are going, if you feel a little bit like you are living in the world of Welk's 1984, then I think this movie will be just the ticket. It might even help you get some sort of visceral (as opposed to intellectual) grasp of just what it is that's bugging you about life here on Earth in the early days of the 21st Century.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The Machinist

There are some DVDs you know you want to rent, but for some reason you just... don't.

They sit there on the shelf every time you go into the store. They don't call out to you. They don't try to buttonhole you as you browse past them. They just sit there watching you, and waiting. You quite consciously move your eyes over the DVD's box, deliberately not seeing it but at the same time telling yourself, "Soon. Maybe next time I come in."

And then one day, you find yourself not caring about whatever it was that has kept you from renting the movie. You come upon it, you pick it up, and you take it home.

Why would I want to see a movie that features a grotesquely emaciated Christian Bale playing a character who has not been able to fall asleep for a year? Certain images we react to viscerally, after all. Beyond everything that you know about the context and effect of the Holocaust, for example, it's just plain hard to look at, in a reptilian brain sort of way, all those newsreels of people who look like walking skeletons. So, yeah, why would I want to rent a movie featuring a main character who looks like a barely-survivor of the Holocaust?

I've had a long string of not very interesting DVD rentals lately. When that happens, I start hungering, you should pardon the expression, for something I can sink my teeth into. I get "grabby". I just start grabbing things off the shelves, anything that looks even vaguely interesting, or anything that I've been hesitant about before.

What a good movie "The Machinist" is. Pretty much in your cinematically interesting, psychological thriller category, but it's not just glitzy-scary. It takes the time and trouble to actually be about a human being, or, at least be about problems human beings have always had to struggle with. Guilt, for example, and the inconvenience of having a conscience no matter how much you try to not have one. Suffice it to say that if you've ever, um, lost sleep over something you did -- even accidentally -- to somebody else, then there's something for you in this movie.

Great danger of spoilers when talking about "The Machinist", so I'm going to shut up about the story and instead talk briefly about something else in the movie I found fascinating.

As you watch the film, you get the feeling that the story is taking place somewhere in America, Los Angeles, I guess, or some other city in southern California, but there's something not quite right about that feeling. All the cars are American cars. The license plates appear to be Californian. The stop-lights are standard issue USA. But somehow you get the feeling that you are looking at an America that's been dreamed up by somebody. You can't really say why you feel that way. You just do. It doesn't look like a dreamed up America, but it sure feels like one.

Well, it turns out, and I didn't find this out until after I'd seen the DVD, the movie was shot in Spain -- Barcelona, to be precise -- made up to look like a southern Californian city. They did a good job of it. Making it look American, I mean. But there was just enough wrong -- and you can't even say precisely what was wrong -- for this Los Angeles to feel somehow dreamed up.

It's astonishing how many details we are picking up on, recording, analyzing, putting in the "something wrong here" category as we watch movies. I probably could go through the movie with my finger on the "Pause" key and make a list of all the details that make this Los Angeles feel not quite right. That would be an academic exercise I'm not particularly interested in.

What I am interested in is how well this effect works in service of the movie. Our main character has, in fact, not been able to sleep for a year. Having the story take place in a city that feels dreamed up reminds me of all those times I, myself, have been awake far too long -- when all the familiar things around me have started to feel foreign and creepy.

Shooting in Spain was the result of the makers shopping the script around in the USA for over two years, not finding the money, and then finding a production company in Spain that was excited about the script and wanted to put up the money. Maybe it was an accident, or maybe it was the director making the best of the situation (I suspect the latter since this guy clearly knows what he is doing), but whatever it was, the effect of it goes a long way toward persuading us to enter the world of the movie.

If you are without conscience, I guess you should probably skip this movie and go find something suitably sociopathic to do this evening. For the rest of us who know what guilt feels like, this movie is an unexpected gift.

A sleeper, you might say.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The Aristocrats

You probably already know everything you think you need to know about "The Aristocrats". I'll just add my own two cents worth on the off-chance it tilts you one way or the other.

First, let's get this straight. I hate it when people tell me jokes. The minute somebody starts telling me a joke, I can feel myself blushing in embarrassment for them. I look down at the floor. I smile sourly. I do just about everything I can think of to send the message, "Please don't continue telling me this joke." It never works, of course. People can rarely stop themselves once they've started.

Dirty jokes are the worst. I can tell from the third word into it that I'm not going to find the joke funny. By then I'm already trying to think of the least response I can get away with once we get to the punchline. I usually come up with just enough to gracefully get me out of actually having to laugh.

So you can be pretty sure I would hate a movie that is about nothing but the telling of one incredibly filthy joke. Of course I loved it.

The thing about movies is that you always want them to somehow teach you something about yourself. What this movie taught me is that it wasn't that I hated -- for all these years -- people telling me jokes. What I have always hated is that most people, the vast majority of the human race as a matter of fact, are really terrible at telling them.

The people in this movie are the God-Emperors of telling jokes. They are superpowered. They climb the highest building you can imagine, walk out onto the observation deck, leap into space, and then tell a joke to save themselves from splattering on the sidewalk. The difference between most of us and them is that these people actually save themselves. While the rest of us hit the sidewalk and turn into something like tomato puree, these people set down lightly on both feet, then stroll away as if nothing had happened.

There were times during this movie when I literally could not breathe for laughing. It was the kind of laughter where you really can't imagine being able to ever stop laughing -- not huge guffaws of laughter, but that desperate, choking, airless laughter where your diaphragm is locked into a shallow spastic pattern -- guh, guh, guh. I think it must be like what happens when you are choking to death on your flank steak and there is no one around to administer the Heimlich Maneuver.

This movie is probably the most sustained instance of filth and pus and vile and horror laced humor I've ever encountered. I'm not kidding. I'm not exaggerating even slightly. But the filth is not the point. Really, it isn't. The filth becomes (almost immediately) strangely irrelevant. This isn't a movie about a filthy, repellant joke. It's a movie about people who jump off buildings and turn fatal falls into human-powered flight.

This is not a smile movie. This is a laugh-out-loud movie. Wait. Let me rephrase that... that sounds a little too much like a universal recommendation:

This movie is for laugh-out-louders. It is dangerous for smilers-only. Rent it only if life means more to you than an occasional smile.

Finally, on a personal note, and I'm not kidding about this... If you ever meet me, please don't try to tell me a joke unless you are a certified god of joke-telling. If you have any doubts about that -- hell, even if you are absolutely certain of your joke-telling skills -- before you start in with me, please take this simple test:

Go find a tall building. The tallest you can find. Go out onto the observation deck...

[Netflix, B & N, ]

First Annual Fucked Up Turkish Roommates Film Festival

I went to Hollywood Video and rented two Turkish movies. I don't know why. I just felt like it, I guess.

Okay, to be perfectly accurate one of the movies is Turkish and the other is German, I think, but the characters are all Turkish.

The first one I watched was about a professional photographer in Istanbul who is somewhat... "Distant". A cold fish, really. Some guy from the village the photographer originally came from comes to stay with him to look for a job.

As roommates, things go poorly between them.

The second one I watched was about a Turkish guy in Hamburg, wrecked on drugs and alcohol, who tries to kill himself by crashing his car... "Head-On"... into the side of the building, and who then meets a Turkish woman in the clinic they are both in. I guess it's a clinic for people who tried to kill themselves because she's there for trying to do herself in as well. She wants him to marry her so she can get away from the abusive men in her family. She wants to LIVE, you see, which turns out to mean drinking, doing drugs, and fucking anything with two legs except her fake husband. Well, he has two legs, but she doesn't want to fuck him. Is what I mean. For some reason I didn't quite grasp at the time, he agrees to marry her. So she moves in with him.

As roommates, things go poorly between them.

Okay, as you can probably tell, I didn't care for these movies all that much. They weren't bad, but they weren't particularly compelling either. However, I did want to say this: Istanbul is a cool looking city. That one mosque on the hill with the four minarets (featured in both films) is truly a science-fictiony looking thing and I liked looking at it very much.

Maybe I get along better with buildings than I do with people. Sounds about right. I get along with buildings better than the guy in "Head-On" does, that's for sure.

But since this is a film festival I guess I should probably announce an award. Hmm. I, the Jury, give the "Golden Whose Turn Is It To Do The Dishes Award" to "Head-On" because the leading man and woman are very hot-looking, and some of the music is pretty good.

"Distant": [Netflix, B & N, ]
"Head-On": [Netflix, B & N, ]

Tropical Malady

Feeling brave?

Well, no matter if you are or you aren't. It's only a movie, after all. Movies can't kill you, though there are some that can return you to some semblance of life.

It's hard for me to know what you might have heard about "Tropical Malady". It's unlikely it came to your local multiplex, but it has played a number of festivals, including here in New York, and at Cannes where it won a jury prize. If you heard anything about it at all, you probably heard it was a strange and experimental film from Thailand that seems to be divided just about in half -- the first part being a more or less conventionally told love story, the second part being a mystical folk-tale. The general consensus seems to be the movie is something between a head-scratcher and a mind-blower.

Me, I had the accidental advantage of having read a while ago a terrific memoir called From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. It's about a young Burmese man who grew up in the jungle, found his way to the city and university, became a fan of James Joyce, lived through the rise of the Burmese military dictatorship, partially fell victim to it, then at long last escaped to Britain to become the first Burmese tribesman to attend Cambridge.

There's a lot of stuff in the early part of the book about the young man growing up in the jungle, a member of the Kayan Padaung tribe, where ghosts and spirits -- malevolent or simply mischievous -- are pretty much taken for granted. Grandmothers place their faith in them without reservation, but others seem more inclined to take their grandmother's word for it and otherwise avoid dealing with the question of ghosts too carefully -- except when they find themselves in the deep forest after sunset, of course. Who, after all, in the jungle at night, can avoid believing in ghosts?

Anyway, I think the book laid some groundwork in my head for seeing "Tropical Malady" not so much as a head-scratcher/mind-blower, but as a story that simply came out of the jungle and climbed up onto the screen. I don't want to make the typical Round Eye's mistake of thinking that everything that comes out of the East is equally inscrutable. I understand perfectly well that there are differences between Burmese and Thai cultures. Nevertheless, the "ghost belt" does seem to cover a good portion of bejungled Asia. When this movie headed off into the spirit world, I found myself remembering Green Ghosts, recalling how spirits were an accepted part of that young man's world, and so it was relatively easy for me to, what the hell, just head off into the jungle after it.

When you, more or less by luck, experience the movie that way, I think it seems much less of the "divided in half thing" that a lot of people have called it. Of course there is a distinct change in style when the movie goes into the jungle, but I experienced that more as simply a change in the story's location. In our Western terms, it's like a movie that starts out in the city, then moves to a rural location. Of course what you see and experience in the city part of the movie is different from what you see and experience in the country part, but the story is nevertheless continuous. In this case, what you experience in the real world is different from what you experience in the spirit world, but it's the same story. It's just been packed up and moved to a different location.

But I should point out that even the movie's director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, speaks of the movie in terms of "the first section" and "the second section", so I'm not convinced that the way I experienced the movie was the way I was intended to experience it. That's on the one hand. On the other, the director himself, speaking on the DVD's commentary track, never offers authoritative explanations of what's going on. In fact, he takes delight in giving us his theories, and only his theories, of what is happening. Which is to say, I think he is happy to have me experience the movie in whatever manner I experience it. I think you can safely presume he would feel the same way with regard to however you experience it.

Which you should do, by the way. Experience it, I mean. This is a lovely, exciting, spooky, touching, inspiring work. I marvel at it. The tentative romance (between two young men) in the real world part of the film is like a memory of all those times you found yourself getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody, and all those times you felt the thrill of the other person getting sweeter and sweeter on you. There's one scene between the two guys in a quiet spot in the jungle that is like to break your heart with its corniness, but as the director says, the movie is a memory and I don't know how it is for you, but all my memories of getting sweeter and sweeter on somebody are full of corniness. They have very little of the pain I know, intellectually, was involved. What's the use of having a memory of getting sweet on somebody if you can't strip away all the pain of it? We weren't given selective memory systems for nothing, you know.

And the spirit world part of the movie is stunning, assuming you have allowed yourself to go there, of course. There are at least two moments I came upon -- that's the only way to describe how I experienced them -- that will stick with me for a very long time. Both are chilling. There I was looking at the screen, then the meaning of what I was looking at suddenly sank in, and then I quietly gasped.

Sadly, if you are an English Major like I was, this movie may tempt you to look for meaning in all the wrong places. I get the feeling that in the future "Tropical Malady" could be an unending fountain of earnest undergraduate essays on visual meanings and narrative symbolism. We are trained to do it, trained to try to understand or at least explain what this moment and that moment mean.

Resist your training. You are in the jungle now. More precisely, you are in the place where ghosts reside. Here, monkeys give you advice on love and romance. Hand-held radios continue whispering to you long after they've been crushed to bits. Fireflies stand by to assist you, and your heart -- that generally incompetent but sometimes remarkably lucky guide -- wants to take you deeper into this forest.

Go ahead. Trust it. Even though you know you shouldn't.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Upcoming screenings:

  • 2/17-2/18, GSA Cafe Film Series, University Park, PA
  • 3/6-3/17, Belcourt Theater, Nashville, TN
  • 3/20-3/21, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID

Bad Refoos

For anyone who gets interested in my "Film & DVD" section, I should probably announce the policy I've adopted regarding refoos of movies I think are bad.

In short, there won't be any refoos of bad movies.

I had to face this issue the other day because I rented a DVD of a movie that seemed like it might be interesting. I had a vague notion it might be something like "Donnie Darko", a movie I saw a few years ago and admired greatly. Sadly, the movie I rented sucked. So badly sucked, in fact, that I found myself getting angry at it and I started to pound out a vicious pan.

But then I thought...

I'm not some newspaper guy who feels it is his duty to help guide paying readers toward movies that are worth their money, or guide them away from movies that are a waste. I'm interested in creating a list of movies that I think people who share (or suspect they share) my tastes in movies might want to rent and see for themselves.

I really have no desire to protect people from movies I think are really bad. What if somebody actually, you know, listens to me and skips a movie they might otherwise find interesting? It happens, apparently. Even though my tastes are eclectic and wide-ranging -- I may sometimes even see good in a movie that isn't actually there -- it apparently happens that others will see worth in a movie that I think is drek. So, no, I'm resolved to not protect people from their lack of taste. :)

I do see a lot of really execrable movies, though. I guess if somebody wants to ask me if I think a movie they have been tempted by in their video store is worth renting, I guess could express my opinion, if I've seen it. Or, if I haven't seen it... well, I'm always interested in suggestions... so maybe what I'd do then is rent it myself and let you know.

But I'm not going to speak ill of a movie unless prompted to do so. If I have to see some of this crap, I don't see why you shouldn't have to see it as well. :)

And then there are the movies that I think are well worth seeing, but aren't worth a whole lot of verbiage from me. They are, you know, pretty straight-forwardly good and worth spending a few bucks to see, but not worth An Essay.

Into that category, I would place "The Tunnel", a just under three hour movie based on a true story about a tunnel that was dug under the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s. The tunnel was dug by a group of people who had escaped East Berlin but who had left some of their loved ones behind.

It's terrific. The tension at the end borders on the exquisitely unbearable. Great actors, good characters. In German with English subtitles. Yah. Renten der movie.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The Fast Runner (or, The Dream State of My Kinship Nation)

Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.
- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

It isn't merely that I can't stand listening to that man (not to mention having to look at him). It's that the State of the Union address, and American politics in general, have become nearly unwatchable for me lately. I know I'm not supposed to surrender to the impulse to believe "It's all just so much bullshit", but you know what?

It's all just so much bullshit.

There's only one version of the State of the Union address worth giving at the moment. There's only one policy speech worth sitting through. It's one paragraph long, and would take about 45 seconds to deliver.

"I call on Congress and the legislatures of the separate but united States to pass a Constitutional amendment that prohibits any payment to or on behalf of any candidate for, or holder of, any federal office, whether in money or in kind, by any party or entity except the federal government itself, acting on behalf of the citizens of the United States of America."

The American people understand the problem and they understand how to fix it. We are long past the point where mere fiddling can save us. 

Okay, so maybe according to the Supreme Court giving money to candidates is speech. Unfortunately, it is also an excellent source of political and spiritual corruption. As a nation, we know this in our bones. We have over two hundred years of experience living with the problem. I'm sorry if the robber barons and their henchmen feel this is an unjustified intrusion into their rights of free speech. I'm also sorry that not being able to yell "fire" in a crowded theater is an infringement of the free speech rights of raving lunatics.

But really, I'm not all that sorry.

I'm sure this is all too simple-minded of me. I'm sure it offends the sensibilities of the politically subtle and complex. I'm equally sure that I and a great many other Americans don't give a crap what it is, just as long as it gets done.

Will it solve all our problems? No. But it is the first and only truly necessary step we have to take before we can address our other problems. Why the Democrats don't unite and adopt this as their single issue and devote themselves to taking it to the American people, and pushing the thing through to completion, is completely beyond me. And my feeling is that unless and until they do, American politics is, like I said, all just so much soul-deadening bullshit.

So, yeah, I'm happy to admit it: Last night I set out to hatch a very specific plan to guarantee I wouldn't see, even accidentally, one nanosecond of that man's speech. It took quite a bit of thought to finally determine which DVD I should rent. At last I opted for "The Fast Runner". Two hours and fifty-two minutes of some of the best film-making I have ever seen.

Let's take care of this business right now in case you get bored with the rest of this entry and go elsewhere. If you haven't seen this movie, set aside about three hours of your time to sit down and soak this thing in. Turn off the phone. Draw the curtains. Make sure you have all your required snacks and liquid refreshments close at hand before you press the "Play" button. You will be quietly astonished afterward that three hours have gone by. There is, so far as I can recall, no more vivid cinematic verification of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's observation above that "[s]tory is a force of nature."

"Spoilers" follow, though I doubt that my telling you what happens will truly spoil things for you. This movie does not rely on its plot to keep you involved. It relies on a very simple story powerfully told.

Years ago, a stranger came in the night to a small group of Inuits living in the remote and barren (at least to our eyes) wastelands of the Canadian arctic. The group's leader died that night, and the man's son took his place, but an evil seemed to have possessed him, probably the handiwork of the mysterious visitor. Where the group seemed to have had a harmonious existence before, things begin to go wrong.

After many years, a young boy who was present that night, Atanarjuat, "the Fast Runner", has grown into a fine young man. He is in love with Atuat, and she with him, but she has been promised to Oki, the son of the group's leader. Oki is jealous of Atuat's obvious love for Atanarjuat and so he challenges him to fight for the right to claim Atuat as wife. Bless his heart, the Fast Runner actually manages to win his beloved's hand in marriage, and Oki is left even more jealous and resentful than before.

Eventually, things come to such a pass that Oki and two of his henchmen conspire to kill Atanarjuat and his brother while they sleep in their tent. The brother is killed, but Atanarjuat escapes by scrambling out of the collapsed tent and fleeing, stark naked, across the vast expanse of snow and ice. Oki and his two henchmen race after him, but Atanarjuat is not called the Fast Runner for nothing.

Exhausted, Oki and his henchmen are forced to abandon the chase but return to their camp to fetch the dog team and use it to continue the chase.

Miraculously, the Fast Runner survives (barely) his ordeal on the ice and finally comes across a man and his wife and their young daughter. They give him clothes and food, and Atanarjuat begs them to hide him from his pursuers. The man and his wife bravely choose to help the young man. Oki and his henchmen are spotted approaching so the man and his wife hide the young man, and steadfastly deny -- in the face of Oki's threats -- that they have seen Atanarjuat.

The man and his wife nurse the Fast Runner back to health (much damaged by his flight across the ice). Winter comes on hard, and Atanarjuat burns to return to his wife, and to his village where he can take his revenge on Oki.

Suffice it to say that the Fast Runner does return, and through an act of grace manages to restore harmony to the village that had been suffering under the mysterious stranger's evil curse for so long.

So last night, rather than watch further manifestations of the evil curse under which my kinship nation currently suffers, I chose to have the story of the Fast Runner re-told to me. Not so much because I need to believe that there is someone out there, our own Fast Runner, getting ready to return and save us from the evil we suffer under. That sort of wish-dreaming would be childish.

No, it's more that I needed to be reminded that evil is not all-powerful, and that if you just put your head down and keep running, naked and cold and empty of all hope though you may be, you can outlast evil. And that maybe, at the end of it all, you can even pull off an act of grace. And that maybe your single act of grace can in some way save the rest of us, too.

Heh. And all you guys got last night was more partisan bullshit and weird references to something called "switch grass". I'll bet you're sorry you didn't come over to my house.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Incident at Loch Ness

The bad news about "Incident at Loch Ness" (link warn: sound plays) is that it is something of an inside joke. The good news is that (a) it is only something of an inside joke, (b) achieving insider status in this instance is pretty easy and certainly rewarding in its own right, and (c) the film is pretty damned funny.

Yes, it's true I'm on something of a Werner Herzog kick. This is due in part to the fact that I'm actually on something of a DVD kick lately, induced by the recent addition of an HDTV to my Home, er, I mean, Small Apartment Theater System. In fact, I've descended into an orgy of video rentals. Herzog just happened to be standing nearby and so got dragged into the mess. Hmm… Not unlike what happens to him in this movie about Nessie, come to think of it.

But I have to take a moment and explain something here. See, the first joke in this movie was on me, but it requires a little bit of set-up for you to get why.

You may have noticed that I've started a "Film & DVD" category here at The Corpuscle. I am not an expert on the cinema. I'm not even a film student, though I did take a Film Studies elective in high school. And I wrote a screenplay once that made it to the quarterfinals in "The Nicholl Fellowship" competition, but that was a few years ago, and anyway, as we all know, writing a screenplay doesn't mean you know anything about film.

No, I'm just a guy who has an artsy video store near where he lives, and who loves interesting movies that try to do stuff he hasn't seen before. I love pretty pictures, interesting sounds, and characters that intrigue me and so I end up doing a lot of exploring of the shelves in my artsy video store. I neither know nor care much about The History of the Cinema, or The Art of the Cinema, or The Auteur Theory, or anything like that. I'm just a guy who likes to look at what's in front of him, respond to it more or less directly in terms of what it either is or seems to be doing. That's my starting and ending point, really. My theory of film is: "Well, I certainly haven't seen that done before. I like (and/or hate) it." If I write about a film, I mostly write about what it made me think or feel, or what it suggested to me about my own life, or the lives of people I know, or life in general. I am not a Perfessor of Moobies, so if you are going to become a regular visitor to my "Film & DVD" section, come here in search of stuff that might, in my opinion, be worth your time (assuming you haven't already seen it yourself, of course). That's all it's intended to be. It doesn't (I fervently hope) pretend to be anything else.

All of which brings me back to the notion of the first joke being on me. I suppose if I was up on all this film stuff, I would have known what I was getting when I rented this DVD. But the thing is, even if you go to the movie's website and watch the trailer you'll see that they actually go to some lengths to make you think it's what you are expecting it to be. It's all a lie, but I'm glad of it. The joke is worth it.

How to Become an Insider to the Movie's Joke.

The DVD of Herzog's "Grizzly Man" (link warn: sound plays) was released some weeks ago so I picked it up and found it well worth watching for a number of reasons. I may write about it at some point, but not now. Suffice it to say that if you rent the DVD, be sure to watch the documentary included on the DVD about the making of the soundtrack. I liked it even more than "Grizzly Man" itself.

So anyways... after "Grizzly Man" I picked up "The White Diamond" (previously refooed by me here). Two is a crowd and also, as far as I'm concerned, a bona fide kick so I soon returned to the artsy video store to look for another Herzog. "Loch Ness" was filed in the Herzog section (it being an artsy store, you generally find your vids filed by directors). It looked like just the ticket -- lots of spectacular Scottish scenery to show off my new HDTV, Herzog exploring belief in monsters. I was psyched.

So I get home, put the DVD in and this ... thing ... starts. It looks like a documentary on the making of a Herzog film called "Enigma at Loch Ness". I'm like, "Did I accidentally select the Added Features thing? What the hell is this?" I stopped the DVD, poked around the disc menu a bit and finally determined that, sure enough, this thing was the main feature. So... back to the "Play" button...

The thing starts off convincingly enough. We meet Herzog coming out the front door of what appears to be his home, a bungalow-slash-small-house apparently located on a street in Los Angeles called "Wonderland". He's hosting a dinner party that evening for the production crew of the film on Nessie he's about to start shooting. Screenwriter Zak Penn ("Last Action Hero", "Inspector Gadget", "X2") shows up with wife and child in tow. We learn he is a tremendous admirer of Herzog and has somehow convinced the World Famous Director of Art Films to let someone else (namely, Penn), for the first time ever, produce one of his films. But Penn is a little disconcerted by the presence of the film crew filming the documentary about the filming of the Nessie film.

As well he should be.

Others of the crew show up, including world-famous feature film cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and Academy Award winning sound engineer Russell Williams. I'd say "both playing themselves" only… well, it's unclear whether I actually should say that. But anyway. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum shows up too. For the eats and the conversation, I guess.

Okay, so anyways... slowly but surely you begin to feel that there's something rotten going on here. Beristain pulls Herzog aside to discuss the concerns he has with the proposed "lighting package". Herzog is confused -- he shoots all his film using natural light. There's no need for a "lighting package". Beristain says he needs the package for the planned "re-creations". Penn tries to pull them back into the dinner party and away from what appears to be a very dangerous confusion.

Yeah, dangerous confusion. That's a good way to put it, if I do say so. And you know what? That's about all I'm going to tell you about this thing on account of you need to see it yourself. But before you do... if you haven't seen them already you need to rent and watch "Grizzly Man" (and the accompanying soundtrack documentary) and "The White Diamond".

Why? Because the joke of "Incident at Loch Ness" works best if you have a sense of what Herzog is like when he is working on one of his documentaries. He appears in all of the aforementioned, doing his Herzog-thing, and he appears in "Loch Ness", doing his Herzog-thing as well, and in the latter, he is very, very funny. Assuming you know what I mean by "doing his Herzog-thing", of course. Which is why you need to watch the other movies first if you haven't already seen them.

This guy is a riot. If his sense of humor was any drier, you'd have to put it on a map and call it Death Valley. Really, I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. My favorite moment: Herzog on the bow of the boat intently scanning the waves for a sign of Nessie, oblivious to all else.

The DVD has a commentary track that, more or less, strives to preserve the joke's fiction. The first 15 minutes of it features Penn and Herzog, um, reviewing their experiences working on the film. Once you've seen the movie itself, you can imagine the comic possibilities of this set-up so you'll probably want to give the commentary track a try. The commentary shtick stays pretty funny for a while, certainly while Herzog is there, but I have to admit I gave up on it after a while. The joke gets thinner and thinner, but maybe it has a Big Finish or something. I'll leave it to you adventurers out there to discover that for yourselves.

The joke of the movie does have a few flaws in it, maybe even a hole big enough to drive a plesiosaur through, but it's worth it to let all that go. Sometimes it pays to let yourself not be smarter than the movie.

And finally, again, welcome to my new "Film & DVD" section. I call these entries "refoos" because they aren't really reviews, as you can probably tell by now. They're more like... well, I made the word up out of "foobar", if that helps you any.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The White Diamond

Once there was a man who dreamed of flying, but not just any old flying. He dreamed of floating over a jungle canopy and exploring there what some experts say is an extraordinary biodiversity.

So the man built an airship and took it to the jungles of Sumatra. Another man attached a camera to the airship, climbed in and the airship was released into the sky. He floated above a river, following it into a deep forest.

But the airship was not precisely maneuverable and after a while the cameraman and the ship drifted into the upper branches of a very tall tree. The other members of the expedition raced to help him. Meanwhile, the leading edge of a storm crept into the river valley and began to beat at the branches where the airship was stuck.

The cameraman struggled to free the ship, but eventually the frame he was riding in broke and he nearly fell. The rest of his party arrived at the base of the tree. One of them scaled the tree next to the one that had trapped the ship, over 100 feet up, and tried to reach across the space between the two trees to help the man free himself. The movement caused the frame of the airship to shift. The cameraman lost his grip, fell, and landed at the feet of the man who had dreamed of flying.

The human body when it falls from above a certain height transubstantiates as it falls into a 200 pound water balloon. When it hits the ground it generally hangs together better than your standard dime-store water balloon, but there are weak points, chinks in the fleshy armor, so to speak. Take the eyes, for example, which can act as release valves for the fluid pressures generated inside the body at impact. Sometimes the eyes will pop out of their sockets. Occasionally, nails will shoot off the tips of the fingers.

But assuming your dream of floating above the jungle canopy eventually comes true in the guise of a redesigned airship, maybe you can get away with not thinking about any of that for a while. Or, maybe you think about those things everyday, sometimes even twice a day, for the 11 long years it's been since the cameraman fell to his death at your feet.

A rastaman, lounging on a clear plastic inflatable armchair at the edge of a jungle clearing in Guyana and smoking a little something the exact nature of which we cannot precisely determine, gazes up at a sideways-teardrop-shaped airship and pronounces it beautiful. He works at a mining operation nearby and he observes that the airship reminds him of a giant white diamond, floating there in the sky. He dreams of riding the airship to Spain where his mother and 8 siblings moved twenty some years ago. He misses them terribly.

Maybe the trip across the ocean would take a whole year. No matter. The rastaman grins when he imagines himself landing the airship on the roof of his mother's house in Spain, knocking on her door, and then introducing himself as her lonely, long-lost son. A slightly scaled-back version of the dream is that his mother and lost siblings will see this movie he's in and will be inspired to come to Guyana to find him.

Nobody does dreamers, warts and all, better than Werner Herzog -- probably because he is a dreamer himself, one whose dreams are preserved as films, the (more or less) aforementioned documentary "The White Diamond" being one of them.

Try to watch it on a high-definition TV, and make a stab at a surround-sound system too. I am not a rich man, but I have slowly and surely and without spending too much money put together a system worthy of movies like this one. If I can do it, you can do too.

A endless current of swifts, aeronauts in the local lingo, streaming behind a waterfall and disappearing into a mysterious cavern. The shot goes on for what must be nearly a minute -- a decade in film terms -- and the more you look at it, the more you know you want to go on looking at it.

A long shot of the river bending away from you, disappearing into the jungle -- slowly the pure white Gilliamesque airship emerges from around the bend, floating just a few feet above the water. Wait, is it floating on air or on the water? I'm certain I had a dream with that image in it once, even if I know I really didn't.

A beautiful young rastaman moonwalks backward on a rock hanging over the abyss. Mist from the nearby waterfall darkens and wets the rock -- beauty and danger in one.

Some documentaries shot in exotic locations persuade us we've actually been there, even as we sit there in our living rooms on our fat and tremulous asses. Other documentaries remind us that we don't live on just one planet -- we live in many worlds and it's good to be reminded of that because it's so easy to forget. One sort of documentary broadens the mind and widens the soul; the other sort just, you know, widens your ass.

So I'm not kidding. Some movies do fine on a regular TV. Some movies are dreams, though, or have elements in them worthy of being remembered as dreams, and "The White Diamond" is one of those. You wouldn't want your dreams to have scan lines and clumpy pixels and cheesy sound coming from tinny speakers, would you?

But maybe you don't need movies like this one to remember you live in many worlds. Me, I get stuck on this planet sometimes and I forget. I need these Herzogian dream expeditions. Properly gearing up is a necessity.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

Watch And Learn

So this was posted to Zach In Tennessee's blog last night, by a friend of his:

Jun 18, 2005 1:25 AM

For everyone who reads Zach's page, here's an update on Zach. He has to do an extension for 6 weeks. So he wont be able to get online or anything. But he thanks everyone for their love and support. And he's doing okay. He's probably changed slightly because of being in that kind of environment for so long but he is still the awesome zach that we know him as....

I had a feeling that was going to happen. Predictable, I suppose. What with all the local publicity and messages of support, Brainwashing In Action could hardly afford to let Zach go before he was "cured". And now, of course, messages of hate are starting to show up in his blog comments.

He's a Poster Child for both sides now -- a fate worse than life, as a friend of mine used to say. I think the best thing now is to surrender him to the care of his close friends. They are the ones best situated to help him through his summer of hell.

But, as I said before, I was heartened by the messages of support from so many. Lots of good energy there. I hope people do something with it. All of us of a certain age must, of course, continue to fight the radical-right to save this country from them, but the fight will be a long one full of bitter set-backs and soul-testing defeats. It will go on for years. It won't be over after the next election, or the one after that, though we have to work with the intention of winning every election from here on in. More than that, it isn't just a matter of winning elections. It's a matter of winning hearts and minds.

It will take True Grit... of the sort we find in a high school girl -- now college sophomore at the University of Texas, Austin -- named Shelby Knox.

Next week the PBS series "P.O.V." will present the Sundance Film Festival Award-Winning documentary called The Education of Shelby Knox (check your local listings).

Shelby was interviewed during a segment last night on PBS's "NOW". Catch it on rebroadcast, if you can. It will make you want to catch the documentary next week.

From the "P.O.V." web site:

Into the culture wars steps feisty teenager Shelby Knox of Lubbock, Texas. Although her county's high schools teach abstinence as the only safe sex, Lubbock has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the nation. Shelby, a devout Christian who has pledged abstinence until marriage herself, becomes an unlikely advocate for comprehensive sex education, profoundly changing her political and spiritual views along the way.

Texas public schools have had abstinence-only sex education since 1995, when then-governor George W. Bush signed a law making Texas the third state to follow the curriculum....


In the fall of 2001, Shelby, then a 15-year-old high school sophomore, budding opera singer and politically conservative Southern Baptist, joined the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group of high school students empowered by the mayor to give Lubbock's youth a voice in city government. "We get no [sex] education at all in school," says Shelby in "The Education of Shelby Knox." "Maybe twice a week, I see a girl walking down the hall pregnant... It's part of normal life at my school. If a student asks a teacher about sex, the teacher by policy is required to answer with 'Abstinence is the only way to prevent STD's and teen pregnancy.'... If they don't, they're in danger of losing their job."


The Youth Commission decides to fight for comprehensive, fact-based sex education in the town's public schools. Shelby takes up the campaign with missionary fervor....


Shelby finds herself in a difficult position on the home front, too. Her parents are supportive, but they are also concerned about the stress the campaign is putting on her, and by Shelby's increasingly liberal attitudes. When they suggest she quit the commission, Shelby explodes, "I'm not dropping out... I have power there."

On the public level, the youth group is getting extensive media coverage but little attention from school officials. After repeated requests, the school board finally allows them to present their recommendations. Although the school board listens, the members are not persuaded, and it becomes clear that the district will continue to implement its abstinence-until-marriage sex education in the city's high schools. Again, Shelby refuses to give up.

Shelby now allies herself with a group of gay students who have been denied the right to form a gay-straight alliance in school, feeling it will galvanize her campaign. This is not a fight that Corey and the kids on the commission, afraid of adding more controversy to their already contentious agenda, want to join. Soon after, the mayor of Lubbock announces that he is considering doing away with the youth commission because of a city budget shortfall....


By her senior year, Shelby is committed to working with the gay teens, who have decided to sue the Lubbock School Board. She has also declared herself to be a liberal Democrat, a turn that shocks her Republican parents. But when an organization whose slogan is "God Hates Fags" comes to Lubbock to protest the gay kids' lawsuit, Shelby, along with her mother, joins a counter protest, carrying a sign that reads "God Loves Everybody," and affirming a belief that will guide her into adulthood: "I think that God wants you to question," Shelby says, "to do more than just blindly be a follower, because he can't use blind followers. He can use people like me who realize there's more in the world that can be done."

Does Shelby win her fights? I dunno. I haven't seen the documentary. I'll find out next week, I guess.

For all those young Americans who flocked to Zach's blog to post their comments of support, take that energy and do good with it. America can't survive on the fantasy of political power and activism  that comes with posting a heart-felt message to a message board. America needs an Activist Army ("Be all that you can be!") to fight the battles that have to be fought to save our freedoms. Those battles have to be fought the way Shelby Knox fights them: in the real world, at the cost of your blood, sweat, and tears.

If you are a friend of Zach's, if you came here by way of a Google search on gay+zach+tennessee, if you are a parent with a child approaching the age of political action and consent, if you are just somebody who believes that it is young America that will finally have to win this war for us, please pass the word (quickly, if you can) about the upcoming broadcast of The Education of Shelby Knox. Online activism is great for organizing, and emotional and psychological support, but without the kind of commitment and action epitomized by Shelby's story, we are going to lose. Watch the story of her struggles and learn.


Acting In A Space

It began with a comment from Jo on my previous post, Acting In Space:

"Did you see Dogville?"

No, I had not. Now, I have.

There is so much to say. First, for those unfamiliar with the film, two things that you will want to know about it before you see it: (1) it is three hours long, and (2) it takes place entirely on one large, nearly (but not quite completely) bare stage.

My earlier post, the one to which Jo posted her question, was about Episode III of Star Wars. It was about how I thought the computer-generated sets made crappy actors out of a group of people who had otherwise and otherwhere shown themselves to be talented and skilled.

I said:

I want actors acting in spaces that are real to them. And after all, isn't it getting harder and harder for the visuals to really impress us? I'd trade some of the gee-whiz visuals for actors acting in real spaces. No matter where all these characters go, whether it's the galactic core or the outer rim, it's the people we ultimately have to care about. You can't take people out of the places where they are supposed to be and still have those people be believable and worth caring about.

People exist in spaces. Good actors know that precisely. The spaces people are in matter.

Readers of both this post and my previous one will notice the slight change I made in the title to this one. Dogville is not acting in space; it's acting in a space -- a specific place, a specific set that, while sketched in with a floor plan of the town and dotted with some set pieces and a few necessary pieces of furniture, is nevertheless as real in the actor's mind (and eventually in the viewer's mind) as any space you will ever see in any movie anywhere.

At first I thought Jo's query was a sort of challenge to my original thesis. After all, the first distinguishing thing I learned about the film when I researched what had been written about it was that it had been "shot exclusively in studio with a minimum of props". When I put the DVD in the player and fired up the movie, the first thing I noticed was the resemblance of the Dogville space to the spaces I knew the Star Wars actors were forced to act in -- both large and essentially empty.

Of course, that's where the resemblance ended -- both in reality and in my own mind. Dogville exists; the places in Star Wars do not -- at least not until post-production and even then, only visually. The difference is the town of Dogville exists as a solid -- despite the sparse set -- in the actor's minds. They live in Dogville and because of that, they "sell" its existence to the rest of us.

I should mention here that this is my kind of film in the sense that it is one of those films that people seem to either love (for some value of love) or hate (for just about every value of hate).

Stephen Holden is one of those who hated it and his review in the New York Times is one of the stupidest pieces of writing about a film I've seen in a long time. The usually reliable Roger Ebert also hated it. His review makes a mess of things, too.

Part of it may be that the film was made in 2003 and released in the U.S. sometime in early 2004 (I think). The story takes place in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Great Depression. Given the times we live in, and given the dark vision we get of this small town, I think many Americans, including many critics, in their typically self-centered way assumed this was some sort of vile and unfair criticism of Small Town America. Well, if it was that, I cannot say the criticism -- harsh though it may be -- is necessarily unjustified. I've seen people acting this way, at least in miniature. I think most people have. And it's not as if we haven't seen, in film or literature, this sort of criticism of Small Town America before. I guess the rule is, if you are an American, you can get away with it. If you are not an American, if you are a film director from Denmark who has (Ebert helpfully points out) never been to America, then you are viciously Anti-American.

Get over it. Americans aren't the entirety of the human race. This film is far more Dürrenmatt's The Visit than it is Wilder's Our Town. Small Town America is not the only place where human beings behave in ways that would make herds of dogs perish from shame.

Look, I know that -- in general -- it is absurd to compare Star Wars and a film like Dogville. In specific, though, it is not absurd when considering the question of how actors act in space. There's no question that the script and most of the scenes in Star Wars are dopey and overblown. But I will bet you one whole American dollar (because there's no way I can either win or lose the bet) that if the actors had been given a solid version of the fantastic places their characters purportedly lived in, they would have pulled off, or nearly pulled off, some of the crap lines and scenes they had been given.

The story of Star Wars first existed in a mind where the characters actually lived in these fantastic places. Their lives were actually filled with these fantastic plots and events. I'll bet it all worked just fine in the mind of The Creator. The characters filled the fantastic places in which they lived, and under such circumstances fantastic characters, fantastic behaviors, fantastic emotions, fantastic lines and scenes are not just allowed, they are required. You can't expect actors acting in blank, nondescript, green-painted, green-lit empty spaces to rise to such occasions.

In Dogville, the town is painted on the floor. The various houses of the good people of Dogville are marked out specifically, and furnished with necessary items. None of this stuff is added-in later (though some sound effects are). The characters operate imaginary doors that are as real as they will ever get. They will not be added in later with the help of machines. If the actor doesn't make it real at that moment, it will never be real. And so they sell it. Various similar sales are made by the actors throughout the film, and in that manner the town of Dogville becomes real.

The actors in Dogvillle know their characters exist in a space, and they know it is up to them to create it. The actors in Star Wars similarly know their characters exist somewhere, but they are forbidden to make any part of the void they are acting in real in their own minds. Adding in a computer-generated door over the top of an actor making an imaginary door seem real would look absurd.

It makes a difference.

And by the way, just in case I didn't make it clear, I think this movie is brilliant. It's one of those films that energizes, despite the emotional brutality of its subject matter. If you think your taste in movies runs something along the lines of mine, set aside three hours sometime and watch this thing.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

The American Astronaut

The other day I was checking in at my neighborhood Hipster Video Store and in the new releases section there was a lonely little DVD waving at me from the shelf. "Rent me! Rent me!" It was called The American Astronaut. I liked the cover. I liked the tag line: "Space is a lonely town." I liked the list of film festivals that had "officially selected" it. I liked the pitch: "a musical space western". So what the hell, I rented it.

Probably some of you know this movie. I guess it's playing continually some places (Boulder, CO, for example, I think). It was released (more or less) in 2001, but the DVD didn't come out until February of 2005.

When I was in school, there was a premium in my department on Quirky Writing. I liked this emphasis at first, but then I got more and more tired of quirky writing in and of itself. I'll go along with just about anything for a while, but after I begin to feel that something is just quirky for the sake of being quirky, I get annoyed. Odd to think that quirkiness itself can become a cliche, but it can.

But then there is writing, or film, or music that seems odd and quirky and bizarre at first (and so you are intrigued), and as you go along with it you begin to feel, whoa, this isn't just quirky, this isn't just odd... this is a genuinely new vision. You can tell the difference between plain quirky and a new vision as follows: the thing starts to make sense to you even though you can't figure out what the hell the thing is up to.

I loved this movie. It's in black & white, gorgeous to look at. It's funny. You can tell the actors are totally committed to what they are doing, which is crucial in a thing like this. The music is by The Billy Nayer Show and it works so well with the film. I'd never heard of the band so I tracked down their site, listened to some samples. I have to say I was disappointed by the newer stuff -- at least by the samples provided on the site. Still, the music works really well in the movie. The film was written by, directed by, and stars one of the Billy Nayers, Cory McAbee.

Oh, and because it's a DVD, it has a commentary track of course. Only as McAbee explains on the disk, he tried doing the commentary track in a studio but the techie fell asleep and so McAbee was talking really quiet so he wouldn't wake the guy up and, you know, it just wasn't working out too well. So he decided to record his commentary during a live showing of the film at Union Pool, a bar in Brooklyn. So there he is up on the stage, mic in hand, taking questions from the audience while the film plays behind/next to him, dimly lighting up what looks to be a drooping bed sheet for the screen.

The copy of the DVD I had was a little funky -- skipped and stalled a little bit. Don't know if that would be the case with other copies. This was not exactly a major DVD manufacturer-distributor, so I don't know if that had anything to do with anything. That crap happens with even the big deal manufacturers-distributors, so who knows? Probably just a funky copy.

If you understand what I mean by the difference between simple quirkiness and a genuinely new vision, then I so recommend this movie to you. Watch it once, then watch the commentary track, then watch it again. I think you'll like it.

But, you know, it's very odd. The humor and vision and music all work for me in a very big way. It won't work for everybody, though, because the take on life the film has is -- here's something you don't see everyday,Chauncy -- truly unique. So, you know, if you don't like it, sorry about that. You can't say I didn't warn you.

[Netflix, B & N, ]

In Memory

May 2006

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