April Fool's Day
A few days ago an editor at this paper asked if I wanted to review some movies from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. "How many?" I asked. "All of them," he said. (There are about 60 features in the fest.) I said, "I'll do 30, but I'll need $10,000 and not more than $9,000 less." Done!
My deadline is in eight days. According to my son's biology text, whole worlds have been created in less time. I plan to turn this thing in before rosy-fingered dawn unveils itself on Thursday.
Understand that not so many years ago I filled my days with hot dog-eating contests and powered my nights with the sort of stimulant cocktails favored by maverick truckers. Certainly I'm older now, but I can still throw back the Dew (diet) and burn the midnight lamp. (I've found the 11:30 lamp to be nice as well.)
I figure that 30 movies will take about 60 hours to watch. I'll allot myself 30 hours for researching, writing, and revising the agreed-upon 3,000 words. That's 1.6 minutes per word, which probably sounds Herculean to you, but I'm a professional, one who can sometimes come up with entire phrases—"hot dog-eating contest" for instance, or "throw back the Dew"—in, like, 40 or 50 seconds.
Having done these calculations, I now realize that my hourly wage for this assignment will not greatly exceed that which I received in the 1980s as a packing and transport consultant—or "bag boy"—at the Highland Park Lunds. But that's okay because I loved that job and I just know already that I'm going to love this one, too.
Generally what I'll do here is write in the morning about the previous day's work. Except when I write at night about the current day's work. I know I'll write some reviews that will ultimately be deleted from the final draft, so at the end it might look as if I haven't, in fact, seen 30 movies, even though I have. I mean I will have seen 30 movies, 'cause so far I haven't seen any of them. I hope this doesn't become terribly confusing.
So far I've made it through one movie. I'm already behind, but Tuesday is when I plan to shift into high gear—like fourth. I suppose I could watch the films in an order conducive to constructing artful transitions such as, "Turning to another Scandinavian film about human interaction..." but that's not my way. I'm just popping 'em in at random.
I started with Norwegian director Jens Lien's The Bothersome Man, which had me waterlogged with optimism about my forthcoming immersion in contemporary global and independent filmic art, an optimism that endured for at least several hours. Trond Fausa Aurvåg plays Andreas, an accountant-esque accountant whom mysterious authorities have relocated from points unknown to a stylish city, oddly devoid of children, where he's been equipped with an upper-crusty life. "The majority of people are happy, and we're proud of that," a townsperson tells Andreas, and indeed most are pleasant, superficial, and emotionless even amidst errant bursts of extreme violence. How should I put it? An excellent movie for life during wartime hovered over by both Kafka the comic fabulist and Kafka the prescient realist.
That brings me up to evening. My wife and I arrange a babysitter to have a proper date. She suggests a movie.
I'm a family man and people expect things of me. My son, for instance, expects me to drive him to school, despite the fact that MTC comes within blocks of the school and doesn't even charge kids under six.
I've only watched seven movies. To stay on track I'll need to start watching eight per day. I can do this. The average American, says Nielsen, watches four hours and 35 minutes of TV per day. But I have been judged above average by as many as three English teachers and no fewer than one sexual partner.
Yesterday's movies were devoid of breeze, froth, or whimsy, so I'll have to work doubly hard to make cute little jokes in the following paragraphs. Lamre Olabisi's August the First was filmed in suburban New Jersey, mostly around the swimming pool of the director's childhood home. The drama, set during a college graduation pool party for sweet and confused Tunde (Ian Alsup), proceeds clumsily to the climax—in which, yes, two fully clothed players fall into the deep end.
Naoko Ogigami's Seagull Diner is a sentimental, sporadically charming seriocomedy in which quirky, blandly philosophical characters do a lot of cooking and eating in Helsinki. The movie's tagline seems to be "Mmm." Sentimental, blandly philosophical food movies are made to be sleeper hits, and Seagull has reportedly slept its way into many Japanese hearts. Don't go on an empty stomach, folks will tell you, which seems half-right.
To break the monotony, I set up camp in a coffee shop with my laptop and Ana Kokkinos's The Book of Revelation, an exploration of sexual violence with the genders jumbled (the victim is a man, while the perps are three women with masked faces and Playboy bodies). That worked fine until the film got ostensibly if not technically pornographic, and I worried about being mistaken for a pervert. I mean exposed as a pervert.
Having completed today's entry, I'm ready to plant myself before the TV for the next 15 hours or so. If I have to stay up all night, I will.
Wednesday, 1:30 A.M.
I only made it through five more. Humans are not meant for this kind of prolonged passivity. I've been doing a lot of running in place while watching, but that only goes so far, and at one point, just after Ruby's Town, a long documentary about a turkey race, I lit out in a huff on a bike ride. Ruby's Town is a celebration of small-town life and the definitive history of the annual two-part race between the avian representatives of Cuero, Texas, and Worthington, Minnesota. This is the sort of stuff for which the final 30 seconds of local news broadcasts exist. Perhaps it would've worked better in that format.
Writer-director Claudia Llosa brings us Madeinusa, the title being both a pun and the heroine's name. In the film's early going, Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) is crowned the most beautiful young virgin of a strange village in the Peruvian Andes. The honor won't cure her head lice or keep at bay her wicked father (Ubaldo Huaman). It does, though, attract the attention of a stranger in town (Carlos J. de la Torre), a light-eyed itinerant miner from Lima who has been waylaid by a flooded road. Most of the action in this delicate, folkloric debut goes down during Holy Week, which the town treats as a bacchanal on the grounds that from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, God is dead and therefore can't see sin.
Dutch director Heddy Honigmann's Forever is an affecting doc about art and death built around interviews with folks visiting and tending to the graves at Paris's Père-Lachaise. One interviewee says that when, as a teen, he awakened to great art, he knew that he would never again be bored. Never bored. I'd like to see that liar argue a parking violation at the downtown DMV.
Wednesday, 'Round Midnight
I've been thinking a lot about boredom this week. Boredom is an inevitable product of watching five movies more or less in a row. One must then try to figure out whether or not the boredom is meaningful.
Many boredom scholars maintain that boredom is always accompanied by some degree of hostility. When it isn't, we call it something else, such as tranquility. Sometimes the hostility is directed outward, e.g., This movie is tedious, and I resent it for stealing my time. And sometimes the hostility is directed inward, e.g., I, raised on Hollywood and rock 'n' roll, am too stupid for this slow but reportedly brilliant novel, and I will die in embarrassed ignorance of its subtle pleasures. I sometimes try to use these differently aimed hostilities to sort all art into two camps: art that is too boring for me, and art for which I am too boring.
I was bored during parts of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, from the makers of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, but I was able to relax and go with its creeping flow. Rasmussen is set in arctic Canada in 1922, and draws on the accounts of the titular Danish explorer. The vantage, though, is that of the shaman Awa and his similarly gifted daughter, Apak. Several of the high-def video shots are in slow motion, and the directors make a virtue of laconic lethargy. Foregoing story arc for an old-fashioned yet grave yarn, Rasmussen eventually finds its principal drama in the battle between waning traditional Inuit spirituality and waxing Christianity. Philosophically rich and even richer visually, the movie is a poem to white, gray, and light brown that ought to shame the designers of California Closet brochures.
"We believe happy people should not worry about hidden things," says an elder in Knud Rasmussen. That's the near-polar opposite of Slavoj Zizek's worldview. Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is the star of Sophie Fiennes's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a three-part lecture devoted in particular to the films of Hitchcock, Lynch, Chaplin, and Tarkovsky, though it touches on lots of other films and directors along its long but engaging path. Using painstaking reproduction work and some original locations, Fiennes inserts Zizek into the visual world of the films he's discussing, not that the star needs much help to be entertaining. Zizek stutters, spits, searches for words, gestures wildly, and altogether behaves like the dream professor of one's dreams. Occasionally, as when he posits that Groucho, Chico, and Harpo represent the Superego, Ego, and Id, Zizek seems too reductive, not to mention Zeppo-repressive. More routinely his thinking is outsized, stimulating even when it seems to flirt with sophistry.
I wish Zizek were here to engage Satoshi Kon's Paprika, an anime film about a high-tech gizmo that allows psychotherapists to visualize and enter their patients' dreams. That sounds like a super idea, but the device gets into the wrong hands, from which it can only be wrested by headshrinker Chiba Atsuko and her alter ego Paprika. In my dreams, I'm usually telling someone that I don't have a Speedy Rewards card or something like that, which might be why I liked this movie so much.
I got another batch of DVD screeners yesterday, possibly my last. My editor has been trying to get me the new Lars von Trier and some other biggies, but this stuff can be hard to track down. I might not be able to reach 30 movies after all. I'm relieved. I figure I'll file my article on Friday—or maybe Saturday, still ahead of schedule.
As I say, I haven't been programming my viewing choices with any agenda in mind, but yesterday was mostly jokes and marshmallows. Francis Veber is a master of the bagatelle, and The Valet proves it. I won't even gloss the plot. It's a romantic comedy involving supermodels and deception, with an especially funny performance from Daniel Auteuil. David Wain's The Ten proffers a comic sketch for each of the Ten Commandments, and features alums from MTV's The State. It's blasphemous and "politically incorrect"—as if political correctness held any sway these days—but not really edgy (or "edgy"), since its satire has nothing it really wants to cut.
An old tweed jacket of a movie, John Carney's Once tells of the musical and romantic relationship between a vacuum repairman/busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech flower girl/pianist (Markéta Irglová), both eking out livings in Dublin. A slice of life and a slice of (very good) cheese, Once gets emotional resonance out of a search for AA batteries, and never lets go of its rainy, bittersweet mood. The characters don't exactly break into song, but Carney's skeletal plot is conveyed largely by way of original folk-rock tunes, written and performed with soul by the leads.
Jesper Ganslandt's semi-autobiographical Falkenberg Farewell, shot on the super cheap and largely improvised by Ganslandt and his boyhood friends, proves to be one of the best cinematic portrayals of hetero male intimacy I've seen. At first the film seems to be about ennui and nostalgia among Swedish small-town slackers. But then the ennui turns to serious despair.
During today's longueurs, I stayed perky by doing some of my ablutions. I brushed, I flossed, I clipped. I was encouraged to forego shaving this week, but my face gets oily when hairy, so I laid out a towel and a pot of nearly boiling water in front of the TV and enjoyed a long, sensual shave. The secret to a close, comfortable shave is not five-bladed razors but the hottest water you can possibly stand. For years I didn't know this. So you see, I, too, have suffered.
Good Friday, Noonish
I'm not a religious man. But I'm pretty sure Jesus didn't die on the cross in order for me to have the freedom to watch a movie about killer sheep. Not to damn Black Sheep, a genetic-engineering-gone-haywire picture from New Zealander Jonathan King that does double duty as satire and giddy gore fest. (Ever see a man get his penis bitten off by a rabid sheep? Now's your chance!)
Black Sheep arrived this morning along with the aforementioned von Trier flick and three others, so it looks like I will be able to see 30 movies, though I guess not in a time that's likely to impress anybody. Last night I played tennis and ate a two-course meal with the TV off.
Good Friday, Three-ish
I still have nine movies to go, but I'm excited about my new innovation: a cheap portable DVD player. I figured out that I could prop it up on the side of the tub and have a nice long soak while, you know, working.
Generally when we call a film "daring," we're speaking metaphorically. Not so with Summer Palace from Chinese director Ye Lou, whose unapproved use of footage from the Tiananmen Square demos got him barred from making movies for five years. Summer, by following several Beijing University students from '89 through the early 21st century, seeks to be something of a generational epic, though it focuses on the tumultuous affair between mercurial Yu Hong (Lei Hao) and saturnine Zhou Wei (Xiaodong Guo). The collegiate section harmonizes with Yu Hong's desire to "live intensely," but the film loses momentum as its characters grow older and not deeper. It's a long movie, featuring roughly 74 sex scenes and twice as many voiceovers from Yu Hong's lugubrious diary.
By the way, I haven't read anything out of a non-reference book in over a week, which is starting to bum me out.
It was cold out today, but I wouldn't have minded taking another bike ride, maybe passing through Loring Park with its enormous bronze statue of Ole Bull. That statue has always suffused my inner being with the following thought: Who the fuck is Ole Bull?
Never again. The subject of Aslak Aarhus's documentary Ole Bull: The Titan was a violin virtuoso who made his Paris debut in 1832 and spent much of the rest of the century wooing international audiences with reportedly magical performances of mostly original compositions. If you think that cross-marketing is a recent development, note that the Norwegian's first North American tour was preceded by the introduction of Ole Bull brand soap and perfume. He remained, however, Ole from the block, an eternal patriot who helped promote a national Norwegian theater and, most astounding of all, founded Oleana, a "new Norway" in Pennsylvania, exhausting his fortune in the process.
You still run into arts collectives these days, but most of them don't even have the decency to live together in a battered Victorian or hold regular EST sessions. Cine Manifest, a San Francisco-based Marxist film collective, was the real thing, with all the idealism and self-righteousness that implies. They made two acclaimed indie features: Over-Under, Sideways-Down in '77, and the Minnesota-made Northern Lights in '78. The documentary Cine Manifest—directed by and featuring Judy Irola, the collective's lone woman—spends a fair amount of time on the group's ancient internal disputes, about which I plan to shrug at a later date, but the movie is generally engaging. Irola's light hand reaches an effective compromise between a night on the couch with a scrapbook and a serious piece of countercultural history.
Joachim Trier's Reprise centers on two post-collegiate aesthetes from snooty Oslo who, in the film's first scene, each bestow manuscripts of experimental novels upon the same unsuspecting mailbox. Brooding Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) becomes an overnight sensation; quiet Erik (Espen Kouman-Høiner) has to wait till the following afternoon. Philip suffers a psychotic break. Erik, influenced by a Nietzschean misogynist in the writers' peer group, fears that his girlfriend will lure him into domestic banality and ruin his noble artistic future. Depictions of callow artists are overpriced at a dime a dozen, and this one ain't Joyce. But it's good, with smart ambience and music influenced by New Waves of various stripes and eras.
So I'm caught up in egg hunting and whatnot (remember I said I was a family man?), but I still manage to see the 30th and final film.
Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All is a gray-not-black comedy that has Jens Albinus playing pretentious actor Kristoffer opposite Peter Gantzler's Ravn, a ruthless but insecure president of a technology concern. Ravn has hired Kristoffer to portray Svend, the "boss of it all," whom Ravn invented years ago and has regularly employed to pass the blame regarding his many unfeeling executive decisions. Dogmatic von Trier gives cinematographic credit to Automavision, a process through which shots are randomized by a computer, resulting in all kinds of oddly framed images. These aleatory high jinks, coupled with frequent jump cuts, give Boss a strange duality of unreal naturalism similar in effect to the director's earlier triumphs with handheld cameras and natural lighting.
The film is most distinguished, however, by being very funny. In fact, I would see it again. In fact, I would see many of these films again. Just maybe not tonight.