Friday, January 13, 2006

All that Jazz

All that Jazz is an extremely ambitious film that does some incredible things with the medium of film. Bob Fosse was best known for his choreography work, but watching this film, it's clear that the man was doing much more than just trying to capture his dance on film, this is a movie that takes full advantage of what you can do with the cinema to tell a story.

In the 70s, right around the time this film came out, Scorsese and Coppola both had monumental failures when they tried to create dark, more reality based musicals. While New York, New York and One From the Heart both have their merits, both films falter on account of the fact that they're trying to recreate 30s musicals with a dark spin, rather than just using the musical form to service a darker story. That's what Fosse does here, it's a very dark film, and the musical numbers are designed to fit within the universe of the film, rather than to rebel against it.

This is one of those films that works wonderfully on screen, but clearly had a lot of trauma behind it. Gideon is a thinly veiled version of Fosse, and creating a film this personal must have been difficult. Where does Gideon end and Fosse begin? I don't know enough about the man himself to really assess that, but it's not essential to enjoying the film. The film's been called self indulgent, and in some respects, it is a bit narcisistic to think that the world needs a film about your life, but in this case, it really does work. Fosse is not easy on himself, the character is presented unsympathetically, and in the end, his personal flaws ultimately overwhelm his artistic genius. Ironically, by making such a great film, Fosse avoided this fate, though he would die of a heart attack a few years after the release of the film.

What makes the film so effective? There's a number of things, one is the basic character arc. This is a really engaging portrait of an artist, showing both the joy and difficulty of creating art. Gideon is at a point in his life where he's been successful, and in many ways that's the worst thing that could happen to him. It builds up a level of expectation for everything he does. This is most apparent in the scene with the television review of 'Stand Up.' After the massive success of 'Cabaret,' there was nowhere left to go, and critics are almost inevitably going to turn against his next film in reaction.

Similarly, on stage, he's struggling to come up with something original, dealing with the pressure of his deadlines. Gideon is so in demand that he has no time for his daughter, no time to forge meaningful connections in his personal life, so he is unable to really embrace his relationship with Kate. He's clearly stretched himself too thin, which is what ultimately leads to his heart attack, and eventually his death.

The story itself is interesting, but it's in the execution that the film stands out. One of the coolest elements is the fantasy sequences, featuring Joe reflecting on his life in the company of 'Angelique,' who we eventually learn is the angel of death. Using these fantasy sequences gives us deep insight into Gideon's psyche that isn't necessarily evident from the real world stuff. The fantasy stuff comes to the fore at the end of the film, and those sequences are absolutely stunning. Besides, being narratively important, the fantasy scenes are aesthetically remarkable. The hyped up neon stages are a great representation of the excess in Joe's life.

Throughout the film, there's a lot of really interesting choices. I liked the repetition of the taking pills and shower wake up montage, and it's possible that this film may have been an inspiration on the similar sequences in Pi. After a quick check of the net, I see that Aronofsky 'presented' a screening of the film in New York a few years ago, and you can definitely see a connection between the two films. The eye closeups prefigure stuff in Requiem for a Dream, and the Tappy Tibbons fantasy sequence at the end of the film could take place in the same neon world as Joe's hallucinations here.

The choice to mute all the sound except for Joe's breathing during the script readthrough sequence was another inspired moment. Another really cool thing was the repetition of the standup comedy routine throughout the film, which worked really well as a comment on the action.

The musical is a form that I think has a ton of untapped potential. I loved Buffy's 'Once More With Feeling,' and in some respects, Magnolia is an Aimee Mann musical. I'd consider the integration of visual and music the 'purest' cinema, so that would make the musical the purest, most cinematic genre. And yet, there's very few films that really use the musical well. This has instantly become my favorite musical film, because it's one of the few completely successful serious musicals.

Like the other aforementioned 70s musicals, this is an update of a classic genre trope, the backstage musical. This film does to the backstage musical what Watchmen did to the superhero comic, completely deconstruct its tropes and bring out the darkness of the themes inherent in the previous films. A movie like 42nd Street says that all it takes to put on a great show is hard work, what this film does is take that message, but show the reality of what doing that work can do to a person.

And yet, much like in Watchmen, you still get the traditional pleasures associated with the genre. The musical numbers here may be offbeat, but they're even more visually interesting than the work in the more traditional Cabaret. The opening 'cattle call' sequence features a stunning pullback as you gradually realize just how many people there are on that stage. This sequence also features some pretty ugly 70s clothes, but it doesn't really distract from the film. Enough years have passed that it no longer looks dated, it's more that the film is a period piece set in the 70s.

In this film, there's a high level of competition for wackiest musical number. One of the early contenders is 'Air-otica.' It's an interestingly staged number, and I'm not really sure what to make of it. The point of it was to show how Gideon's ideas are constrained by the need to make his work palatable to the mass audience. There's a sexuality inherent in his stuff, however, he normally has to keep it within acceptable confines, this number pushes it to the forefront. It also reflects back on his upbringing within the burlesque clubs, clearly those times are still a major influence on him.

The sequence where Kate and Michelle dance for Joe was one of the sweetest moments in the film. The scene where Joe and his daughter dance in the studio felt a bit contrived, like the relationship was there for story purposes, it wasn't real. However, the dance in his house made the relationships feel real, and that's crucial to making the end of the film work.

Some of the stuff during the first chunk of hospital hallucinations felt a bit off, like it was too self consciously weird, or perhaps there were just too many songs spun together. The sequence with all the girls with feathers in particular didn't seem to do much. However, the basic concept of Joe directing a film of all this in his mind was cool enough to make it work. And I really liked some of the makeup and costuming here, particularly Michelle's Ragged Robin style facepaint.

The highpoint of the film was by far the finale, the 'Bye Bye Life' sequence. This is where the film ascends into a 70s lounge version of heaven, and concludes with both a great song and an emotionally riveting narrative conclusion. I love the design here, Joe's shiny coat and all the lights on the stage, though the Kiss outfits on the band didn't quite work. The excess of the whole thing reminded me of the end of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall,' another work that's intensely personal and goes to really strange places, yet somehow pulls it all off and really works. The sequence where Joe says goodbye to everyone he's known is very powerful and I love the way he glides down the hall towards Angelique. This was clearly an influence on the episode of Nip/Tuck where Julia experiences an alternate life while undergoing surgery.

The final moment of the film is incredibly stark after the raucousness of 'Bye Bye Life,' and the abrupt cutoff is jarring. The film's final image is disturbing, but considering what's come before, it was pretty clear that the film couldn't end any other way than with Joe Gideon dead. On the whole, the final sequence is absolutely stunning, I love the way the film moves on to an entirely symbolic plane, using the dream imagery to find an emotional closure that would never be possible in the real world. The dreamstuff makes it possible for Joe's death to be simultaneously sad and jubilant, it's a farewell performance rather than a simple pedestrian death.

Watching this movie made me want to get back into the editing room and take my film to another level. It's a movie that could have been a fairly standard biopic, however through the unique filmmaking, it becomes a full portrait of one man's troubled psyche, that neither romanticizes nor demonizes him, and instead allows the character to rise and fall on his own flaws and merits. It's a riveting, inventive film that shows that sometimes self indulgence works.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review Revue - January 2006

Last Tango in Paris - I was a big fan of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, so I figured I'd check out his original sex in an apartment film, Last Tango. I guess reading about the controversy surrounding the film's release made me expect something a bit more explicit. It's certainly got a lot of content, but this is one of those movies that pushed the boundaries, and as a result, its successors have gone further than it did.

So, where does that leave the film itself? It's got one of the best titles of any film, evocative and a perfect description of what happens in the film. The relationship is Paul's last chance to really feel alive. He's surrounded by the numbness created by his wife's death and it's only in that apartment that he can feel alive. When Jeanne rejects him, he's got nothing left and it's logical that he dies then. The basic emotional core of the film was strong, and the sexual content wasn't there solely to shock, it's integral to the character development. Brando is excellent in the film, a thoroughly engaging performance.

However, the whole subplot with Jean-Pierre Leaud making a film felt a bit disconnected from everything else, and also the ending felt a bit off. It was enough to let Brando die emotionally, there was no need to actually kill him. That's the cliched 70s film ending, every New Hollywood film seems to end with the main character getting shot down.

And one other superficial gripe was why did Jeanne ditch the awesome pimp-like style she was rocking at the beginning of the film for the bad 70s perm?

Downfall - This film got a lot of good notices, it's currently ranked #46 on IMDB's top 250 films of all time. It's the type of film that's easy to respect, but is ultimately hollow. The subject matter has a lot of gravity, Hitler certainly isn't a subject to be treated lightly, no matter how many incarnations of The Producers have been successful. This sort of historical setting automatically bumps a film's star rating up by one. If this same film was set in the future and done as a sci-fi movie, it wouldn't be anywhere nearly as respected.

Now, you may say that that makes sense, it's the film's relationship with historical reality that gives it meaning. And that's ultimately the problem. As a film, this isn't particularly successful. There's way too many characters, and without a huge knowledge of Nazi history, I knew them as something like "that guy with the mustache," rather than as actual people. I struggled just to keep track of everyone, so that meant that I couldn't really relate to them. So, while some scenes were very effective, such as the mother poisoning all her children, it ultimately doesn't hang together. I think it would have been more effective to narrow the film down and focus on the experience the seceretary had in those final days, rather than trying to cover all those people. We knew her story, so the parts with her were more emotionally affecting.

That said, I do admire the way the film refused to either demonize or sentimentalize Hitler. There were moments where you saw him as hateful and demonic, but then ohter times he would seem like an ordinary person. Bruno Ganz did a great job in the title role, virtually unrecognizable compared to his great work in Wings of Desire.

Me and You and Everyone We Know - This was the indie darling of 2005 and it definitely fits into the mold of last year's indie successes, Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite. I loved Garden State, but hated Napoleon Dynamite, so it's logical that my reaction for this film falls somewhere in between, since it has similarities with each. One of my favorite things about Garden State was how stylish its cinematography was, this film goes for a less self conscious style, though its still well shot. All the little stories within it were nicely woven and I feel like all the characters had a nice little arc.

My favorite story was the difficult courtship of Richard and Christine. You really did want them to get together, and it's admirable that July was able to replicate the emotional experience of a Hollywood romantic comedy without taking the formulaic style of those films. The funniest moment of the film was when Robby finally meets up with his online friend, an absolutely hilarious, bizarre moment.

Badlands - Another Malick film. I've now seen his entire filmography and his first film finds his style in an embryonic state. The voiceovers and nature are here, but this film is set in a fairly recognizable everyday reality, something that none of his other films share. The first half hour of so of the film sees the characters move from a traditional world to a more typical Malick world, when they create their life in the woods. This is treated as an edenic period, apart from the world Kit and Holly live an uncomplicated, pure existence. However, that existence is destroyed when society crashes in, sending them off on the run, and ultimately both Holly and Kit give up their run, knowing that they can never return to the perfect life they so briefly had.

The film looks good, but Malick isn't yet the incredible visual stylist he would later become. The voiceovers are more closely tied to the narrative, less devoted to philosophical musings, it's an altogether more conventional film than The New World. I'd imagine at the time it got a lot of comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, I think B+C was a better film, but this one has a lot of merits. Martin Sheen is great, and the whole film has an almost dreamlike progression from event to event. Holly seems to live all the events as if in a dream, with no concern for consequences, and because she's the audience surrogate, we feel that way too. It's this dreamlike atmosphere that Malick would build on in his later work. I don't think this is a truly great work, like his later three films are, but it was an important step in the development of a great talent.

Gozu - Speaking of dreamlike films, this Takashi Miike film is a disturbing, confounding journey through a world that resembles our own, but is not it. Miike is notable for being the most prolific director since Fassbinder, he churns out movies like they're going out of style, he's released fifty films in the past ten years, no one else in the world is even close to this level of production. I've only seen three of his films, but they're all unique and challenging, even as they fall short of being truly great. Should he take more time on each? Perhaps, but this is still one of the better films I've seen recently.

The film's basic premise is Minami needs to find the body of his Yakuza partner, and doing so brings him into contact with some really weird characters. The film is certainly bizarre, going to some places you might not want to go. The breastmilk pumping is a bit disturbing, as well as the brilliant image of the lactating light on the ceiling. Then there's the giant cowheaded demon who licks Minami. This is pretty weird stuff, but the finale of the film tops it all, with a really disturbing birth sequence.

This was a film I liked, but didn't love, and the reason for that is because the film sets you adrift in this bizarre world with no frame of reference. The movie got a lot of comparisons to Lynch's stuff, but the thing about Lynch is he doesn't just throw in weird stuff for no apparent reason, there's a reason to everything he does, even if he's the only one who knows it. Watching Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, the surreal images all have a purpose and meaning within the narrative, and profound emotional significance for the audience and the characters. However, here, it's more like a tour of a bizarre world. It feels a bit like an 80s fantasy movie in that respect, Minami is looking for the body, and along the way he has some wacky adventures.

That said, the ending where Ozaki does come back, albeit changed, was very strong. That was where the film came together, and the aforementioned birth sequence is an inspired conclusion, leaving you unsure about the nature of the characters' relationships and all that's come before.

While I think the film isn't neccesarily designed to fit into any kind of linear interpretation, this is what I'd say it's about. Minami has an attraction towards his partner, Ozaki, but is unable to deal with this attraction. After he loses him, he's confronted with various images of female sexuality, most notably in the landlady's lactation, and he's not sure how to deal with this. When Ozaki comes back, seemingly in a female body, Minami isn't sure whether this is actually what he always wanted, the chance to have a relationship with Ozaki, while still staying straight. However, he finds the whole thing a bit weird. At the end, he has sex with female Ozaki and winds up splitting Ozaki into two personas, his friend who existed before and the female version, who he can continue to have a sexual relationship with. So, in his mind he splits the attraction and finds peace with this new incarnation of Ozaki.

I'd have to see it again to go more in depth, but that's the basic idea I got. As for what is objectively 'real' in the film, that's very tough to say. I'm not sure even Miike would know that.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

In the Mix - January 2005

These are the albums I've been playing most in recent weeks.

Kanye West - Late Registration - I'm not a huge rap fan, but this is one of the best rap albums I've ever heard. Jon Brion's production is phenomenal, and the rhymes are great. "Touch the Sky" and "Roses" are the highlights, but all the tracks are pretty solid.

Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes - Tori does really strong rocking songs, as well as more introspective stuff. I like the props to Sandman in 'Tear in Your Hand' as well as the early 90s rockiness of 'Crucify.' The title track is another highlight.

The Zombies - Odyssey and Oracle - A 60s classic, most notable for the song "Time of the Season," but all the tracks on here are great. It's pop that sounds sunny and dark at the same time, most notably on the excellent "Rose for Emily."

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema - The New Pornos are unstoppable when it comes to making really catchy power pop. This is my second favorite album of theirs right now, but it's growing on me. I'm looking forward to seeing them and Belle and Sebastian in March.

Junior Senior - Hey Hey My My Yo Yo - 'Taking My Time' is a wonderfully catchy track, and a number of tracks travel in the same territory as classic Michael Jackson. It's really fun, infectious dance pop.

Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run - It lives up to the hype. The title track is exhilirating, but the epic album closer 'Jungleland' is the real highlight, andthe album is notable for the great saxophone solos throughout, sax solos that don't sound like bad 80s sax or porn, not an easy feat.

Patti Smith - Horses - Like Born to Run, this is a 30 year old album that feels more fresh and relevant than nearly any of the rock put out today. 'Gloria' is a fantastic opener and she continues to rip through great songs building up to the ten minute 'Land' number, one of rock's great epics.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Respect Films

I've been spending this entire vacation working on my new film, The Perfect Dose. 2005 was a major turnaround for me in terms of actually making films. Up through 2004, I'd always been interested in film, and had made some things, but I'd never made a film I would consider mine. I always worked with a whole bunch of people, and that meant that I didn't get to put as much into the movies as I might like. And after doing Tabula Rasa in January 2004, we didn't do another project for an entire year.

However, at the start of 2005, Jordan and I shot Ricky Frost, a film that was a big jump for us. For one, it was the first time I was able to operate the camera for pretty much a whole movie. This was right around the time I saw Fallen Angels for the first time, and in the film, I basically tried to capture the energy that WKW and Christopher Doyle had in that film. After a hiatus, I edited the movie in the summer, and it came together pretty well, you could definitely see the start of the current style I've been using, all handheld camera, lot of deep focus and multi-plane photography. I was really happy with the way that movie came out, and at 35 minutes, it was by far the longest thing I'd done so far.

During the summer, Jordan and I ran a filmmaking workshop for LMC-TV, and we made a really strong film called Extracurricular Activities, which was a really enjoyable action film made with a bunch of kids. That was a half hour, so in August, I edited 65 minutes of footage. It was a bizarre month.

Then at school, I took film production and dropped four short films, two of which I'm really proud of. These films pushed the handheld style even further, I love the way that my final project, Key 23, looked. That was part of my "Black, White and Gray" trilogy. Only one of these is online, Do Unto Others, but the others should be online pretty soon. So, I did about fifteen minutes of total footage, bringing the grand total for 2005 to 80 minutes of finished film.

I'm really proud of the stuff I did last year. There was a lot of variety in subject matter and narrative style, and it's cool to now be able to program an entire night of entertainment for people.

So, this year is starting off with a lot more film. A Perfect Dose is a big jump because it features semi-professional actors, people hoping to make it big. This is good for a number of reasons, one because it increases the quality of acting in the film, but also because it means that they actually want to be in the movie, there's no need to bother them to get them to show up. And, they actually know their lines, so we were able to run the lines and do five minute long takes of certain scenes. We broke it up in the editing, but still, it was cool to be able to do that.

The editing has been taking a long time. I figured we shoot in two days, then edit for a couple more and be done, but every weekday, I'm doing eight hours or so in the LMC editing room, going through the footage. I've gotten into doing color correction on each shot, which means that it takes a lot of refinement before we finish. I'm happy to do it, but it's taken more time than I thought. However, it also makes me really happy to do, the time goes so fast when I edit, I think it'd be a great job. The time would just fly by.

That film will be done next week. This semester, I probably won't do as many films, however, hopefully I'll do something. And then this summer, I'll probably do a couple of projects. And in the fall, I'll be doing my senior thesis. The other thing I'd really like to do is make a music video. So, there'll be plenty of film made this year.

Anyway, to recognize the increased level of production, Jordan and I gave ourselves a name, Respect Films, and made a website: So, that's where you can get new stuff from me, and we'll be updating it with more of our past films. Check it out, and report back with any comments you've got on the movies.