Los Angeles Review of Books
Shallow Depth: “Son of Saul” Shows Nothing and Says Nothing (February 21, 2016)
Son of Saul makes a crucial mistake in its representation of these actions. Saul takes neither interest in larger questions of survival nor seems compelled by the labor. He instead participates in the film as if part of a video game–like infrastructure: go to X location, retrieve Y object, meet with person Z, your rabbi is in another grouping. Nemes latches onto just one idea that the literature on the Holocaust has produced: the extreme automation and robotic elements that Sonderkommando faced.
Little White Lies (only available in print)
R.I.P. (Speculations Beyond the Grave) — Issue 63 (Jan/Feb 2016), Page 34-35
Kung Fua nd the Western have always shared affiliations, but it took martial arts master King Hu to truly demonstrate the oddity of Hong Kong cinema with Hu’s 1997 Western The Battle of Ono. Set along a railroad, Chow Yun-Fat stars as the leader of a group of immigrants who take arms against their ruthless overseers (Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman) in a gun-meets-sword battle for freedom.
Cowpoking: Tennessee’s Partner (1954) — Issue 62 (Nov/Dec 2015), Page 24
Westerns about male friendship bordering on the homoerotic are a dime a dozen, but it’s fun to imagine a scandalous election year where clips of Payne and Reagan gazing into each other’s eyes would challenge the candidate’s narrative of hyper-conservative masculinity.
The First Haunted House — Issue 61 (Sept/Oct 2015), Page 21-23
Similar to the slapstick comedies, de Chomón works mostly through editing tricks while keeping the camera in a single vantage point. The actors move through a series of amusing poses and gestures as they react to disappearing chairs, flaming bats, the entire house tiling (a gag appropriated into Chaplin’s The Gold Rush), and in the most creative sequence, an animated knife and sausage chase. The popularity of the film led to an exact rip-off made in the United States by J. Stuart Blackton in 1907, as copyright laws did little to protect Pathé.
Jodie Mack — Issue 60 (July/Aug 2015), Page 31
The psychedelic appeal to Mack’s shorts becomes the fuel for her interest in domestic ephemera—blankets, rugs, wallpaper, knick-knacks—where the proximity of the camera turns them into living, dancing objects. Dusty Stacks of Mom takes place at her parent’s poster shop in Florida, as Mack (literally) re-animates the forgotten objects of a business overtaken by the Internet…The old school ethos of Mack—shooting in 16mm, all edits done in camera, and stop-motion effects—turns the capitalist machine of her objects of study into something personal and delightful.
Littlest Outlaw — Issue 59 (May/June 2015), Page 34
While going as far to shoot a bilingual film, it seems that Disney never bothered to show the Spanish language version to Chicano audiences. El Teatro Liberty, San Jose’s Spanish language cinema, would play a double feature every week (mostly titles from Azteca Films). El Pequeño Poscrito never played there. Even stranger is the case of Hollywood’s premiere Spanish language magazine Cine-Gráfica, which dedicated its pages to the role of Hispanics in the industry. The Littlest Outlaw was barely mentioned, even in a five-page profile of Pedro Armendáriz around the release of the film.
Linklater Beyond Texas — Issue 53 (May/June 2014), Page 32-33
Linklater is a Texan filmmaker, but his talents lead to speculation that he would comfortably sink his cinematic roots in whatever city, state, or country he called home. It’s clear in his work outside the Lone Star State that his films have always taken the concept of location seriously, with landscape and story often melding into one.
50 Shots: Through the Olive Trees (1994) — Issue 50 (Nov/Dec 2013), Page 78-79
Kiarostami allows us to fill in the details—what did he finally say that convinced her? What did she say to him? Where is he now going? Will she change her mind tomorrow?—of what this final gesture could mean. We aren’t given a close-up, and yet we still feel the intimacy of the action that has happened, simply because we are invited to participate in the action as spectators.
“We Just Did Long Takes Every Time”: Hou Hsiao-hsien on The Assassin (October 23, 2015)
“What you see in the film is what happened; there’s no CGI, it’s all natural and exactly as it happened. This was shot in Hubei province in Mainland China, in an area called Shennongjia, which is about 2,700 meters above sea level. So it’s very high up and it was a very humid day, so there were cloud after cloud just coming in waves through the mountain and the valley. So honestly, it didn’t take us very long at all to shoot the scene; it was just happening like that. So we just showed up and shot it. Had it not been a very humid day without clouds, I may have still been able to utilize it. It just so happens there were clouds, it was humid, and so it was the kind of scene we ended up utilizing for the film.”
If the film isn’t a history lesson, what is it? It certainly showcases some of Andersen’s favorite films and filmmakers (he claimed his working title was Great Moments from the Cinema)…The film ends with quotes from Deleuze’s hope to restore a “belief in the world” through cinema, using the “As Tears Go By” sequence from Made In U.S.A. But what does Andersen want his audiences to experience? During the Q&A, Andersen appeared anxious about the response, admitting, “I don’t understand the movie myself.”
Sight & Sound
Shock Treatment: Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick (January 29, 2015)
While Amiel and Begler have structured a routine drama, Soderbergh can’t help wedging his personality into it. The opening frames declare his authority: a shallow-focused POV shot of Thackery’s feet in white Balmorals lying crossed in an orange-hued opium den. Then Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic synthesiser score kicks in, as the doctor self-injects cocaine in the back of a carriage, every detail of the procedure captured through a series of rapidly edited close-ups.
A More Balanced Audience: The 2015 TCM Film Festival (April 1, 2015)
The audiences are largely, by both my and others’ accounts, female. And within quite a range; one would assume a festival dedicated to showing films from Hollywood’s Golden Age would attract older generations, but there were swarms of women in their twenties, thirties, and forties as well. I overheard numerous calls to husbands and children of women telling them what a blast they were having without them. So how has TCM Fest attracted such a more gender balanced audience in a movie culture that seems otherwise dominated by an alarming male centered universe?
A Community of Film Lovers: The New Orleans Film Festival (November 11, 2014)
NOFF then, is appropriately a film festival but more of a community of film lovers event, a time to get everyone together and share what they’ve been working on for the last year. Filmmakers mix with programmers, mix with juries, mix with regular audience-goers. The Sunday morning brunch for awards (BBQ shrimp over grits!) was designed as a free for all sit and chat with whom you please, and not a place of networking but sharing. The main theater reflected this design as well—a converted mall multiplex with a bar and tables to chat in between screenings (plus no waiting in hour long lines to make it into a movie). Even if the festival’s program mixed Hollywood against these smaller productions, audiences seemed more engaged to find these their own reflection than the one that Hollywood programmed for them.
The Film Stage
McCarey, a born-and-bred-in-Hollywood man, could not be more different in style from Fassbinder’s model of Sirk. His camera is kept to simple, unshowy compositions, and he employs few camera movements. He’ll often keep characters equal in the frame in evenly designed two shots (though never symmetrically so). If he cuts in between people in conversation, he won’t necessarily rush it on natural drama beats, matching the tempos of the elderly lives.
“It was not the performance Renoir was after; it’s the fact that the human face and body can tell the story more than cinema’s manipulation. Simply putting the camera in front of the body could often be enough. Melville’s world was one of singular moments — something highlighted into extreme making apparent what was invisible. Renoir also sought the invisible, but in a way that it could be missed by his young protagonist.”
The difficulty of measuring auteurism is a losing man’s game: we begin to assign details in a singular way that forgets the importance that studio practices play in a director’s work. We forget that film artists are often crafted by their industrial limitations, and while Ozu’s style was so distinctly his, he remained a key partner in a studio where audiences often went in with genre and studio implications — the sort for which his work became, at times, simply the “house style.”
Race and the American Movie (March 25, 2015)
Most critics consider reading the press notes as a zenith of research, while others turn to the archive. While cultural critics continued to publish their pieces on the racism of The Searchers, the archive revived our interest in Oscar Micheaux, Julie Dash, and Charles Burnett. They are turning Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, and Mabel Normand into key figures of the silent era. They are transforming how we think about issues of race and gender, giving us new texts to work through and using documents to turn history into a malleable object.
Edges of the Frame: Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (March 25, 2015)
It’s a picture about the margins — of America, of masculinity, of race — and thus defines itself by the constant turns. Despite its possible status as a postwar film, Ride the Pink Horse fits better as a timeless film, by which I mean, rather literally, time-less: its universe exists outside time. Nobody really has a past, and nobody really has a future. Everyone exists only in this moment.
Looking at great artists is both a minefield of arduous love and misguided thought. We recognize them as masters without mistakes, every decision (regardless of its merit) another credit to their genius. We love the men (never women) in order to better canonize our chosen art form, all the better for our own posturing via lists, comparisons, and pronouncements. Most alarmingly, we stop looking at and describing the art itself. We repeat oft-handed quotations by others who evidenced the greatness long before, while the work that created our love in the first place fades. We simply stop looking.
A Universe of Emotions: Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (February 17, 2015)
To say Renoir captures action is to say his cinema is one of gestures, movement, emotions, smiles, tears, and kisses. While typically known for a use of deep focus, his formal patterns are more elusive than such a description could suggest. He rarely repeats shots and refuses to establish space, but in lieu of these filmic patterns he captures something akin to contemporary realism.
Rhythms in Four Minutes: Lucercia Martel’s La Ciénaga (January 28, 2015)
In this shot, we can see Joaquín is somewhat ambivalent about taking the shot; Martel edits to a close-up where we see him quickly turn his head back to the boys, and then match cut that moment back to Mecha turning her head back toward the camera, a stunning flow of rhythm. It also almost creates a gravitational pull that Mecha has toward everyone around her — she is the center of the universe, and all power will center toward her.
There is a certain static element to Fassbinder’s direction; he seems to have conceived the film in a series of tableaux shots (hello, #PerfectShots!). But these are only the building blocks for Fassbinder’s drama, because it is the sudden movement of characters, such as Petra’s swift lunging for a phone, that registers as the most exciting moments in the film.
A Cultural Radical In Documentary Form: Les Blank (December 18, 2014)
Trying to formally understand Blank presents something of a challenge. His camera doesn’t wander so much as simply follow its subjects, often in handheld but never distractingly so. He isn’t against interviewing subjects (such as Frederick Wiseman as adamantly maintained), but they appear sparingly. These qualities of amateurism, however, are less apparent when one considers how the wall-to-wall music creates a rhythmic quality, as Blank (alongside partner and collaborator Maureen Gosling) was obsessed with perfecting his films in the editing room, turning what feels like stray observations into a cohesive whole.
As a former critic for Cahiers du cinéma (a not-uncommon credit for contemporary French directors), Assayas’ clear articulations don’t show how L’Avventura may be a direct influence correlation to his films, but instead represent a kind of stylistic Rosetta Stone for understanding what he does with his shots. And for many filmmakers of his and Antonioni’s time, attempting to escape the atom bomb of influence that is L’Avventura proves impossible.
Shirley Clarke and the Obscuring of Reality (December 1, 2014)
On their surfaces, both resemble conventional forms of documentary filmmaking we know too well: Jason is essentially a tell-all confessional, shot over one night where a man can pour out his soul, while Ornette: Made in America celebrates of one of free jazz’s most influential artists by tracking his history and legacy. Neither, however, could be effectively summarized as that without looking at how they break down the form as well.
John Ford as the Great American Poet of Cinema: My Darling Clementine (October 16, 2014)
T.S. Elliot once remarked that poetry was not “the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Perhaps this is what moved Ford away from the auteurs and toward the poets — his presence is felt, but not so fervently as the beloved of Cahiers. His camera simply captured an American ethos succinctly and directly, and a painfully felt one.
There is much to consider when examining Bresson’s form, but I find it has less in common with the contemporary art house that has adapted his influential techniques (often just “model”acting) and more similarities with the Pre-Code films at Warner Brothers. This is not just because Pickpocket is, in some ways, a gangster film, but because the way Bresson tells his stories visually — through glances, visual details, and, most essentially, editing — is less an ascetic tendency than one of economy, the same kind we recognize in Mervyn LeRoy or Allan Dwan.
Even when the representation fails, the emotions — or at least the perception of them — can take on their own authenticity, the only real thing in a public space. These metropolitan faces suffocate characters, filling up private desires with distraction and leering visions that always misinterpret what is really there. And two filmmakers capture the fact that love is never pure — there is always something on the outside that controls it.
Seeking the Hidden In the Evident: Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (June 16, 2014)
It is thus that Rock Hudson’s Home Movies is less an essay than an elegy and a call that perhaps an innocent time was not so innocent. These scenes not only take on a comic edge through their come-ons and gay panic, but also that scenes of Hudson’s various deaths become strange predictions for a man who would die of what was still, then, a disease linked to queerness. As if staying true to the idea of “change mummified” of Andre Bazin’s ontology of cinema, his body is dead, but his screen persona is trapped on the celluloid images.
The Voice Version of Red River eliminates a few shots and a few lines by Dunson declaring that Matt draw his gun near the end. The ending in the Voice Version thus feels choppy and unbalanced — Matt’s stone-cold conviction is essentially missing, which is to say nothing of Wayne jumping literally 10 feet via a continuity error.
The tension between dignity and violence is amplified by Siegel’s camera. Cell Block’s authentic locations and use of real prisoners give a sense of character to every shot, especially in the mass-scale photography that displays a wobbly group dynamic between Neville Brand’s leader and those secretly dissenting — often for comic effect, as when, in one scene, prisoners charge down the gigantic corridors just to reach a ringing telephone Siegel’s masses, often shot in large group shops, resemble amorphous geometric shapes attempting to form something coherent, but always breaking apart at the edges.
Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s camera often skewers our sense of the space to engender a psychological reading of the characters. This is most apparent in his use of the iris technique in almost every shot, eliminating unnecessary information and making us focus on the characters and their faces.
Akira Kurosawa’s Politics of Space: The Hidden Fortress (March 20, 2014)
Despite crafting many of his masterpieces in the classical Academy ratio, the widescreen “Tohoscope” (CinemaScope for Japan) image naturally befits Kurosawa’s dynamically lit compositions and swift camera movements, along with epic moments such as a staircase battle between prisoners of war and their captives — a staging which must feature hundreds of extras.
A Look at Steven Soderbergh’s Studio Debut: King of the Hill (February 26, 2014)
While people are quick to relate it to the work of Spielberg, King of the Hill seems more indebted to his descendant, Robert Zemeckis, whether it’s his child-like rendering of the past in Roger Rabbitor the period-esque hometown spirit of Back to the Future. Zemeckis works to re-create those sensations of youthful bliss, but Soderbergh is constantly confronting them; while often shooting scenes in classical shot-reverse shot patterns, he often creates a break that braces the viewer, whether the slanted angles that place characters off-balance, the occasional direct address, or “continuity error,” such as Billy Thompson’s changing shirt.
Michael Mann and the Cinema of Flow: Thief (January 14, 2014)
Thief‘s two heists are primarily shot through close-ups of a drill and then, later, a special blowtorch breaking through metal walls; Mann emphasizes these extremes because he’s interested in a viewer seeing the movement of material — those tiny bits of metal which spew out from the drill and the array of sparks which blast from the blowtorch. When one character gets blown away by a shotgun, Mann’s camera lingers not on the blood stain it creates, but on how the body moves as it’s shot before hitting the ground.
A New Lens on the Globe: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (January 6, 2014)
European cinema still dominates whatever U.S. market may even exist for foreign films — with the occasional works peppered in from Hong Kong, Iran, or Argentina — but even those appear to only fill certain boxes: while Wong Kar-wai and Abbas Kiarostami are certainly some of the most imaginative directors working today, their labels as “Hong Kong’s Godard” and “Iran’s Godard” is both a blessing and a curse. Searching out films from the far reaches of the Earth can remain somewhat laborious for those without expertise (especially when you don’t speak the language), but it is a quest that provides bountiful rewards, especially when glancing at works without any precedent in the Western world.
Questioning a Canonical Classic: Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story (December 3, 2013)
If anything, what I become most attuned to is Ozu’s moving camera; seen in opposition to his stagnant, 180-degree rule-breaking shots, the motions become breathtaking. The concluding shot of his silent, Mizoguchi-like melodrama, Woman of Tokyo, creates a certain sense of afterlife continuing beyond the narrative itself. In Early Summer, a penultimate, beach-set sequence features what is surely the director’s most loving gesture: as two women walk along a beach, the camera rises above the ground level with sweeping grandiosity. The dolly shots appear throughout the silents and early sound works with an openness to explore the world instead of impose on it.
Too often, however, history is taken as something concrete. We look back at history. We use history to explain our current circumstances. We pick and choose what we want to see — nay, what we can only see, all while blinded by our present. Film history, largely rooted in a series of aesthetic movements scattered across time, is just as complicated, primarily reflecting certain dogmas or theories of what cinema must ultimately accomplish. (Spoiler: it never truly gets there.)
Rhythm and Word: Exploring the Films of Matías Piñeiro (July 11, 2013)
Shooting mostly in medium and close-ups, with little editing within scenes, Piñeiro’s films often fill more of an aural space than a visual one. His camera movements glide along the action and the faces, but it’s often what we don’t see onscreen that excites us…Offscreen sounds always make up a key space for the director, often creating a new relationship to how we understand these boundaries.
Press Play (Video Essays)
On the Q.T., Part 2: Pulp Fiction and the Mythology of Cool (Co-Directed with Matt Zoller Seitz) (October 19, 2012)
Dial K for Kurosawa (May 14, 2012)
Farewell, My Lovely: The Last Philip Marlowe Movie (May 2, 2012)