Archive for May 2010

Beth O and Oh My Dog

Calling all dog lovers - while I know this is not cinema related, it does cover another passion of mine, the care and welfare of animals. I recently had the opportunity to talk with the former model turned author and animal advocate Beth Ostrosky Stern who wrote the book Oh My Dog: How to Choose, Train,Groom, Nurture, Feed, and Care for Your New Best Friend which grew out of a sheer lifelong passion for animals. Co-written with Kristina Grish, the book is a 500 page reference on everything from brushing your dog's teeth (she's even invented a doggie dental pen called Pawfect Smile. Ingenious!) to how to read a dog food label.

You may know Beth as the wife of famous (or dare I say infamous) shock jock Howard Stern (and yes, I have been a fan since his days at WNBC). The newlyweds (October marks a year) reside in Manhattan with an eight year old English bulldog named Bianca and a special needs cat named Apple who was dumped in a box outside a shelter.  And yes, apparently life is pretty normal being married to the King of All Media as she notes,  "We are a pretty boring, normal couple," she says. For more see my story on The Huffington Post.

Beth and Apple

Beth is also a volunteer and spokesperson for the North Shore Animal League  which is the nation's largest no-kill shelter and Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons. Recently the NSAL brought four displaced dogs from the Nashville floods (and my hometown) to the Regis and Kelly show while Beth and Bianca made an appearance. The dogs were adopted immediately.

Beth's book hits the New York Times best seller list this week. A portion of the book and dental pen proceeds go to animal charities. Congrats and keep up the good work!

For more on Beth and Oh My Dog and Pawfect Smile, go to her website here.

Photo Credits: Galley Books/Simon and Schuster, photo of Bianca and Apple by Christoper Appoldt.

Designs and the City: Sex and the City 2

Yes they're back.... and coming soon to a theater near you. Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte return to the screen in Sex and the City 2 (Warner Brothers) this Memorial Day weekend and the film promises fashion, style, travel, love, drama and even a gay marriage with Liza Minelli as the entertainment thrown in for good measure. And great sets.

I had the opportunity to once again interview Lydia Marks who also reprised her role as set decorator (she worked on SATC1 and gave us Miranda Priestly's fabulous power office in The Devil Wears Prada). Lydia, who is also an interior designer and principal of Marks & Frantz in NYC, (her real life work can be seen at the Standard Hotel's roof top bar)  had the opportunity to redesign Carrie and Mr. Big's apartment along with a pretty fabulous wedding party. (Jeremy Conway served as production designer of both the film and television series and came up with the initial concepts).

Cinema Style: What was the design direction for Carrie and Mr. Big's apartment?

Lydia: It was decorated as if Carrie (and her decorator) chose the pieces, but with Big very much in mind!  It was designed to be a place he would be comfortable.  It has a lot of strong lines in it, and furniture with hard edges.  In the layering of the furniture and the personal objects, books, textiles, and collections, I tried to add a little Carrie into it. For example, the carpets were patterns that I chose to reflect her nature and creativity.

Lydia: The kitchen was the one room in the house that was totally given over to Big in terms of design, it's his room. For example, the simple, elegant, mid-century rosewood table and chairs are something he would have chosen. Knowing that this room would be seen in many different shots of the apartment, we wanted a light fixture that would work with that period of furniture and complement the room.

Alan Moss dining table
Lee Jofa fabric on dining chairs
Chairs by Martin Albert
Ceramic tile in kitchen - Heath Tile
Glass and pottery in shelves: End of History

For the living/dining room we made our own cashmere covered wainscoting in a pinstriped deep shade of chocolate to create a rich, luxurious feeling space.

Robsjohn Gibbings Club Chairs from Bergdorf Goodman
Coffee Table - Potrona Frau
Montauk Sofa with Donghia fabric in Basket Case Blue
Throw pillows from Calypso Home 
Area rug from  The Rug Company

Cinema Style: How did the story line play into your decisions?

Lydia: One of the design trends now is overscale furniture. This drove us to search out more vintage pieces, lending a challenge to find the right furniture for Big and Carrie’s NYC apartment - and a set that needs to leave room for actors to move. In the beginning, when the designer and I were discussing Carrie's apartment and what style might appeal to her character, we considered French Deco from the 1930’s because the scale was appealing. We ultimately moved away from that specifically, but tried to retain the scale and the character of that period.

Lydia: The design direction in the foyer was to create a console table that supported an important script note. The director wanted Carrie to make a dramatic entrance that brought her deeper into the apartment. So rather than fulfilling the mundane role of a place to drop your keys and mail, the foyer became an important backdrop for them every time they walk in the apartment. The console table, a great Mastercraft piece, is filled with an eclectic assortment of vintage pieces from different time periods and different 1st Dibs vendors: a beautiful handblown glass bell jar filled with butterflies from the 1800s, fanciful striped lamps and a mirror that is reminiscent of hollywood glamour. 

Cinema Style: And no Carrie Bradshaw interior would be complete without the ultimate closet. Besides finding the perfect man, her dream was to have the perfect closet. Looks like she gets her wish!

For more, see my pieces on "Sets and the City" on the Architectural Digest website and on the
Huffington Post (which should be up today or tomorrow -- check the Style section).

Photo Credits: Warner Brothers, Craig Blankenhorn, Lydia Marks.

Phantoms of Nabua/A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a great sensualist, a director who revels in the sensory and emotional qualities of a particular moment in time and the setting in which it takes place. His feature films are collections of these moments, strung together in such a way as to create a cumulative effect, a slow building-up of emotion and visual beauty. Phantoms of Nabua is a ten-minute short film that documents one such moment, and it's typically evocative and breathtaking. It is divided, roughly, into three segments, with little clear separation between them; rather, they flow into one another, each new section introducing a new wrinkle into the film's treatment of light and darkness. In the film's opening minutes, a village is struck by lightning multiple times, the white-hot strikes looking like fireworks being set off; it's ambiguous whether the streaks of white light are descending from above or spiking up out of the ground. It's frighteningly beautiful, the bright white lines illuminating the dark night, the strikes chaining together and sending out feelers to join with other streaks of lightning. On the soundtrack, the pops and electric sizzles of the lightning even sound like fireworks, making this a natural spectacle, a natural light show.

In the second section of the film, these opening images are projected onto a screen set up in the middle of a field where children are playing soccer at night with a flaming ball. The composition is complex, creating this layering where the images of the children playing are being pasted over the images of lightning. The shadowy silhouettes of the players are set off against the flickering light of the screen, the lightning flashes going off behind them, illuminating their bodies, projecting halos around the players. And the flaming ball rolls back and forth across the field, soaring through the air like a comet with a tail of fire flickering behind it, making whooshing noises with each graceful arc across the darkness.

The interplay of light and dark is gorgeous, as Weerashethakul frequently returns to dark emptiness before reigniting the night with the fireball's glow. He edits the scene into alternating stretches of light and darkness, juxtaposing a near-featureless dark area against a sudden burst of light as the fireball comes flying across the frame. On the soundtrack, the children's laughter and chatter is omnipresent, bringing energy and vibrancy to the isolation of the night. There's this glowing hive of activity and life at the center of the dark void, this small area of red glow, illuminated by the fireball and the sporadic flashes of the lightning on the cinema screen.

In the final segment of the film, the screen catches fire and is burned away, and slowly the game comes to a halt, all the children gathering around to watch the screen burn away, the flashing light of the projector showing through from the other side, the flames eventually shredding the screen until only its bare frame remains, like an empty goal. The metaphor is obvious but layered: the light is both destructive and redemptive, a source of creativity, a document of reality and a potentially abrasive, damaging force. The light both illuminates and eliminates. In the film's final minutes, Weerasethakul cuts in closer to the light of the projector, watching it head-on as, without a screen to project onto, the projector's flashes become abstract, disconnected from reality, occasionally producing wisps of imagery on the smoke wafting in front of the lens. It's darkly beautiful, this image of cinema removed from the tangible world of images: it is cinema projecting into the void, with any hope of communication or understanding removed, a lonely signal going out into the dark night.

There is a searching, hesitant quality to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. It is a film in search of a subject, in search of itself. In the opening minutes, a voiceover repeats the titular epistle twice. The note is from Weerasethakul's own perspective, talking about a relative and the film he wants to make about this man, his Uncle Boonmee, who has apparently been reincarnated in various modern forms. It is a film very much about nostalgia and history, about the past, about the search for links between modernity and the past; this is a near-constant theme in Weerasethakul's work. The voiceover recounts how Weerasethakul wants to make a film about his relative, and how he's been seeking out houses that look like his uncle's residence. Implicit here is the distance between fiction and reality, especially as mediated by the passage of time. As Weerasethakul's camera roves across the interiors of various rural homes, his voiceover laments how his script describes one kind of house, while in the real village of Nabua there are other kinds of houses, and his ancestor likely lived in still another kind.

In one shot after another, Weerasethakul's camera repeats the same stately movement, a graceful arced tracking shot from left to right, tracing various empty interiors, looking over the objects and mementos that may be signs of someone's present life or artifacts of the past. There are photos and documents on the walls, and beautiful views of the jungle out the windows. There are also soldiers, digging in the yard, the rhythmic thunk of their hoes a repetitive and insistent beat on the soundtrack, later joined by the whirring buzz of a fan as one soldier lies on the wooden floor of a house, staring off into space. The voiceover describes how, in the past, there was some kind of military incident here, soldiers who chased away the town's residents as part of some long-ago war.

There's a profound ambiguity in the way the film creates a relationship between the images and the narration: are the soldiers depicted here meant to be the soldiers who forced the townspeople out of their homes in the past, or are they present-day soldiers whose appearance here only evokes the past? Another possibility exists as well, implicit in the metafictional framing device of the narrated letter; the soldiers are actors in the film Weerasethakul is making, since A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is explicitly a preparatory document for his latest feature, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In much the same way as Jean-Luc Godard would, in the early 80s, prepare video essays that contained the seeds of the feature films to follow, this short seems like an essay abstract for the forthcoming feature, suggesting themes and images that, one suspects, will be further developed in the longer work.

None of which suggests that A Letter to Uncle Boonmee is incomplete in itself, of course. It is, like Weerasethakul's features, elliptical and suggestive more than it is definitive, but that's the essential nature of his cinema, which seldom narrows its scope to a single meaning or a single narrative. His cinema is open-ended in all the best ways. Here, the slippage between past and present, between fictional artifice and the reality of the film-making process — Weerasethakul even mentions in the narration that he got British funding to make the film, bringing external economic realities into the picture, another gesture that seems to have been derived from Godard — resonates in interesting ways with the themes of memory and nostalgia. The pictures of ancestors, the rural homes that could represent any time in the last few decades or more, the soldiers who look much like soldiers do in any era. Everything here adds up to a powerful sense of timelessness. Time is suspended by Weerasethakul's weightless camera as it drifts through these mostly empty scenes, ruminating on absence — the absence of the past in relation to the present, the absence of Nabua's villagers, forced away from their homes, the absence of the titular uncle, long dead and sought in resurrected form in other people the filmmaker might meet.

Contributing to this sense of timelessness is the sumptuousness of the images. Weerasethakul's imagery encourages deep contemplation, encourages patience and quiet. As his camera drifts along, there is no rush, no urgency or narrative momentum, only the languid examination of wooden floors and walls, faded and aged photographs, the lush greenery seen outside, the pink haze of a mosquito net erected around a bed, the smoke billowing out of a furnace of some kind. Towards the end of the film, Weerasethakul's camera peers up at the tree branches swaying in the breeze, and above them the clouds drifting lazily by through a pale blue sky, shot from the perspective of someone lying on the ground. As this gaze drifts along, a cloud of insects hovers just below the tree canopy, buzzing in swarms, this shifting mass of dust motes dancing black against the blue of the sky. In this eerily quiet place, Weerasethakul summons the ghosts of history and ancestral memory to drift, silently and invisibly, through the splendor of the present.

[Note: Both of these films are available to watch online, Phantoms of Nabua for free and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee for just $1.]

Graduate First...

Maurice Pialat's Graduate First... is an incisive portrait of small town life for a group of young friends waiting to take the bac, the test that's necessary to get a degree and, in theory at least, greater job opportunities. In practice, this last ritual of youth seems like a formality, increasingly meaningless in an atmosphere where there are few jobs, few real opportunities, for these kids who have no idea what comes next. As usual, Pialat's offhand realism gives the impression of real intimacy with these characters; the cast is large, but each of these young people comes across as complex and vibrant, each coping in his or her own way with the frightening onset of supposed maturity, the end of youth marked by a portentous test, after which no one's quite sure what to do next.

Élisabeth (Sabine Haudepin) is well-known for going around with all the guys, but she finally settles down when she meets Philippe (Philippe Marlaud), who becomes her first "real" boyfriend. Bernard (Bernard Tronczak) is similarly promiscuous; he loves all the girls and sleeps with all of them, never quite letting go even after he's broken up with them. There's also Bernard's best friend Patrick (Patrick Lepcynski), who's always trying to smooth things over for his friend, and who's never quite able to get a girl of his own, and Patrick's sister Valérie (Valérie Chassigneux), who wants to be a model. There's also Agnès (Agnès Makowiak), one of Bernard's former girlfriends who clearly still loves him, and who he still feels real affection for, even though she's marrying Rocky (Patrick Playez) instead. It's the kind of circle of friends where everyone has slept with everyone and remains friends afterward. Pialat's observational style, lingering around the edges of these friendships and love affairs and loose groupings, captures the uncertainty of youth, the sense that these young people are making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives, and yet they have no real guidance, no real idea of how to proceed.

Couples break up and reform, the girls move from guy to guy, and at times the whole group seems like one big amorphous pile — literally in a scene where they rent out a hotel room to smoke joints, and they all lie on the beds, tangled up together, a few couples forming within the general crush of bodies but mostly just existing as a group of friends, all intimate with each other. Pialat captures snatches of the individual stories playing out here — Élisabeth's uncertainty about whether she wants the safe, comfortable existence the likable Philippe offers her; a café owner's (Christian Bouillette) lecherous pursuit of the young girls; Agnès' unhappiness in her marriage and longing for the perpetually unfaithful Bernard; Patrick's desire to move to Paris to be on his own; Philippe's jealousy of Élisabeth's semi-innocent flirtations with other men — and moves deftly from one story to the next within this milieu. The kids have the example of their parents to look to, none of whom seem too happy, or too unhappy either, but the younger generation isn't sure they want this preordained path to maturity. They see in front of them only boring jobs and boring marriages, even if they do pass the bac and get their degrees.

Pialat is a profound chronicler of working class life. These struggles, these uncertainties, seem real and potent. There is no exaggeration, no melodrama, only the quiet realization that life, which seems so limitless and fun as a child, is somewhat tougher and sadder once one progresses into adulthood. No wonder these kids — and they still seem like kids, all so young and fresh-faced — want to prolong their immaturity as long as possible. Love is exciting, of course, and Pialat captures beautifully the fresh wonder of love, the breathless exchanges of kisses, the wonder of being close to another person. He also captures, with equal candor, the way such exchanges quickly become routine, the way these young people are constantly searching for something new once the spark dies down. There is nothing sadder than the way Pialat subtly, without any explicit words, depicts the settling of Élisabeth and Philippe's initially fervent relationship into something much calmer and tamer. They love each other, and she's proud that he's the first guy she's ever wanted to take home to meet her parents — but then she seems to be annoyed by the fact that her mother (Annick Alane) takes so completely to Philippe, who's eager to please and begins doing chores around the house. Élisabeth wanted Philippe to be accepted but didn't want to feel like her mother preferred him to her own daughter, treating him as though he was Élisabeth's brother rather than her boyfriend. It's a paradox that Pialat never makes explicit but portrays entirely through the subtlety of the way Élisabeth looks at Philippe, initially with desire but soon enough with a kind of subdued affection, occasionally tinged with annoyance.

Despite the sadness of many of these stories, Pialat's sense of humor is apparent throughout, and there's charm and joy in these characters as well as trepidation and insecurity. They like to have fun, and Pialat's camera has fun watching them, whether it's the two girls taking turns sliding down a banister in the background of one shot, or the nearly sexual enthusiasm with which Agnès devours a pastry, or the clamor of conversation and joking that takes over the soundtrack whenever the whole crowd gets together. The character of the aging café owner is another rich vein of humor, as his out-of-touch attempts to fit in with the younger crowd only make him seem so awkward and strange. At one point, he picks up two girls and buys them lunch, and is nonplussed when the whole group of friends joins them without even asking, and he's more or less forced into paying for the whole table. While the girls dance, he watches anxiously, eyeing their asses as they shake and shimmy, and his eyes are all but popping from his head with cartoonish excitement. When he joins in, comically trying to be hip and dance along, it's even funnier. Later, he goes shopping and trails along behind a middle-aged woman with a prodigious rear in tight jeans, and again he's hypnotized, so much so that he grabs a woman in a wheelchair to push along instead of his shopping cart. It's the kind of broad humor that occasionally bursts out of the naturalistic surface of Pialat's film, surprising in its willfully goofy comedy.

One also gets the sense of Pialat winking at his characters in the scene where Bernard seduces a sweet churchgoing girl (Frédérique Cerbonnet) and is thrilled when she takes off her sensible clothes to reveal a one-piece with a tiger's face stretched across her torso. It couldn't be a more on-the-nose metaphor: the girl who's sweet and innocent on the exterior but a tiger in the bedroom, the girl who's demure when Bernard meets her on the beach but asks him if he only fucks young girls as soon as she gets him back to her place. Pialat trains his camera for a moment on the girl's torso with the tiger's face snarling, its eyes on her breasts, its teeth bared on her hips, threatening to devour her mate. There's something pure and joyous about this moment, about this slightly absurd touch: it's whimsical and sexy and silly all at once.

Pialat's very first feature, L'enfance nue, had been about a young boy being passed from foster home to foster home, all too aware of how limited his life was. Graduate First..., with its title's ellipses referring obliquely to Yasujiro Ozu's early films about youth life, seems like a sequel to Pialat's debut, capturing these young people slightly later in life than the protagonist of L'enfance nue, but every bit as uncertain about what comes next. It's a question that Pialat answered many times over in his other films, of course. What comes next? Betrayal and disaffection (Police). Cyclical infidelity and romantic questing (Loulou). Mortality (The Mouth Agape). For the characters of Graduate First..., perched on the cusp of adulthood, it seems like everything that comes next is sad and disappointing, the end of the playfulness and freedom they'd enjoyed in youth. Still, Pialat leaves hope alive by the end of the film, the dim possibility that at least some of these characters can prolong their happiness, can find something beyond adolescence worth celebrating.

Purpose, Passion and Ping Pong

I thought I'd share with you my recent cover story for American Airlines Celebrated Living on Susan Sarandon whose upcoming film Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps was previewed at the Cannes Film Festival this past week. Sarandon plays the mother of a young trader (Shia LaBouef) and gets caught up in the real estate/economic crunch. A very timely tale indeed...

While we know the Academy Award winning actress for her many multi-faceted roles and volunteer work (she's played everything from a nun to a gun-toting waitress on the lam -- and who can forget her role as Janet in the cult see-it-at-midnight classic Rocky Horror Picture Show?) -- she is also an ardent activist and about to tackle the real-life role of empty nester.

Sarandon has also added another passion to her resume -- ping pong! She discovered the sport while working with a group of documentary producers and eventually partnered on SPIN New York which is a bar and table tennis club located in the Flatiron district. All players at all levels are welcome and I am glad to see ping pong become fashionable! For more about SPIN, check out their website.

Wall Street 2 premieres September 24th. You can also check out Sarandon in HBO's You Don't Know Jack and currently in theaters, The Greatest with Pierce Brosnan.

Photo Credits: Time Magazine, Celebrated Living, SPIN New York.

The Conversations #17: "Minor" Hitchcock

My latest conversation with Jason Bellamy is a discussion about two Hitchcock films that are often considered, rightly or wrongly, to be "minor" entries in the great director's career: To Catch a Thief and Rope. In talking about these two very different films, we get to deal with Hitchcock's oft-overlooked range, his humor, his use of actors and stars, his treatment of sexuality, and of course his aesthetics. We also touch on what it means for a film to be deemed "minor," and how these particular films might be enjoyed on deeper levels.

As usual, our conversation is only the beginning; head on over to the House Next Door to read the discussion and join in with your own thoughts in the comment section.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

The Descent

Bleak, creepy and, once its true horror premise is belatedly revealed after a lengthy and patient build-up, absolutely brutal, The Descent is as good as minimal, no-frills horror gets. A group of friends, all young women, meet up for yearly adventures in order to bond despite being spread out across the world, dealing with individual lives and individual tragedies. Their latest trip together is a descent into an unexplored cave system, spelunking and crawling through the tight tunnels. The structure's strictly traditional: some set-up, in which the women's chatter and banter at their staging cabin introduces their relationships and personalities, and then it's off into the caves, where the claustrophobia quickly becomes unbearable. The darkness, the constriction, is intense, and these women, crawling through the caves, often crawl right up to the camera, the lights on their heads creating blinding flashes within the darkness. The frame becomes a series of holes, small irregular patches of light chopped out of the blackness that otherwise surrounds the explorers everywhere. It's nearly overwhelming in the way it forces the audience to feel what the characters feel, to be trapped and lost along with them.

And that's all before, after all this build-up towards a claustrophobic but rather conventional story of being lost and trapped in the dark, all hell breaks loose and things start to get really ugly. Director Neil Marshall is excellent at showing just enough to suggest the horror happening in the dark, without actually showing more than a brief burst of motion here, a geyser of blood there, a frenzied struggle thrashing around in the dark. The editing is brisk and occasionally confusing in its rapid pacing and dizzying shifts in perspective, but there's no denying that Marshall still locates numerous striking, horrifying images within this darkness and confusion, honing in on the bracing moments of anguish and devastation that are splattered throughout the film. It's a visceral film, all about capturing the in-your-face sensations of being surrounded by darkness, hemmed in on all sides and assaulted by mutated monsters intent on devouring any soft flesh that gets in their way.

Before this, though, there's an introduction in which the trauma that will linger over the rest of the film is introduced. In one brief moment, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) loses both her husband and her daughter and, in a subtle exchange of glances and gestures that she misses but that isn't lost on the audience, Marshall also establishes the unspoken origin of a slow-burning tension that develops between Sarah and her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and will eventually boil over completely at the harrowing climax. The storytelling is simple, even simplistic, but that's all that's required here: Marshall sets up, very quickly and economically, the minimal conflicts that will serve as a subtextual counterpoint to the more physical horror that explodes in the film's second half.

The rest of the women — Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) — are clustered around this central trauma, creating a realistic group of friends with a naturalistic sense of camaraderie. They mock each other in the way real friends do, goofing around, chatting amiably with rapid-fire patter; one recalls the banter of the women in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, albeit without the reflexive cultural namedropping. The film is raw and stripped-down, eventually sending these cheerful, confident women through the grinder. Marshall captures certain powerful images that appear as though glimpsed in passing in the flickering flame of torchlight: a lake of blood from which the heroine emerges glistening and wet, with little nuggets of gristle and bone scattered along her forearms; the little bubbles of blood that spurt out when a blade cuts into flesh; a white, animalistic naked body caught for a second in the glow of a lamp, like an animal frozen in the headlights; the women's frightened faces clustered together in the green haze of a light; a twisted closeup of a mole-like mutant's snarling face, ooze dripping down its rubbery chin.

Once the monsters are introduced, the claustrophobic terror of crawling through tight spaces, being constricted on all sides, is replaced by the bloody, harsh violence of the women's fight against these creatures. They're separated from one another and forced to fend off the monsters' attacks, and as the formula dictates in a movie like this, attrition begins wearing away at the group, quickly dwindling their numbers. It's obvious from the start who the last two standing have to be, the two friends opposed against each other in subtle ways, their friendship strained by the shared trauma of the opening scenes and the subsequent events. The last two women alive become gritty action heroes, wading through blood, armed with blades that they'd once used for climbing and that they now plunge ferociously into the warped bodies of their attackers. Marshall's direction becomes frenzied and over-the-top, depicting the women with their faces and bodies smeared with blood, striking melodramatic action poses as they fight off waves of the monsters. In many ways, it's a jarring disconnect in tone and verisimilitude, a startling left turn from the first half's naturalistic depiction of underground claustrophobia and fear. These are ordinary women, if especially athletic and adventurous ones, and one of them makes a point, early on, of saying that she's not Tomb Raider — which makes the film's late transformation into an action movie adventure not entirely convincing.

Which isn't to say that it isn't peculiarly satisfying regardless. The film's bloody, gory denouement is, despite its out-of-nowhere action movie trappings and jittery editing, a rather exhilarating and horrifying ride. The metaphorical emotional and moral descent that Marshall doubtless intends as a parallel to the physical, literal descent, is never handled as well or developed as fully as the director probably intends, but even that hardly matters. The film's aims and successes are relatively modest, but within its area it excels: it is a movie that shocks the senses and provokes a profound sympathy for its generic characters, who one by one are consumed by this giant hole in the ground and its monstrous denizens.

Good To Be Back

Dear Friends,

Forgive my long absence from this blog. This blog has been, and continues to be, an important outlet for impulses that are not always sanctioned though other channels. In other words, I can bitch and rant and rave and gush and boo hoo and applaud anything I damn well choose here, at my blog. It has also been a conduit through which I have made several friends - they're listed just below and to the right on my blogroll. Talented and generous amigos all.

After visiting the page with a pretty special person today, I realized I had to get back to some occasional posting. Trash Aesthetics has helped me over the years and I've neglected it in favor of more pressing work. Priorities can be a bitch...

I've been writing for the last year and a half a large project. It's been a long haul and this project continues to taunt me - but I am about 3/5ths done; light is showing at the end of this long tunnel.

So, while I don't have anything major to say tonight about anything in particular, I am SAYING that I will shortly. I've got some usual bugs up my ass about things here and there that I cannot keep bottled up forever. Or, I just may need to get back to some of my usual columns here at T and A that I love(d). Gone to Bed - Girls ga ga, and so forth.

All the best, Your Proprietor
Chick Young xoxo

Forough Farrokhzad

The House is Black (1963)

The only film directed by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who died tragically just four years later at the age of 32, The House is Black is a documentary on a leprosy colony in Tebriz, Iran, with Farrokhzad's narration of Koranic verses and excerpts from her own poetry.

Elaine Summers

Windows in the Kitchen (1976)

The opening sequence of Elaine Summers' Windows in the Kitchen, part of the pioneering "intermedia" artist's collaboration with the Judson Dance Theater.

La nuit du carrefour

Jean Renoir's La nuit du carrefour is a rough, gritty film noir, set, as its title suggests, in a seeming perpetual night at a sleepy rural crossroads, a small settlement with just three houses and a gas station. This way station is always bathed in fog, isolated in the middle of the looming woods, where mysterious figures skulk through the dark on strange errands. A man shows up dead here, a jeweler, his body left in a stolen car in the garage of the Dutch immigrant Andersen (Georges Koudria), who insists that he's innocent. The French police suspect otherwise, but have nothing to prove it, and so they send the wily inspector Maigret (Renoir's brother Pierre) to investigate. Maigret is a great cinema detective in the traditional mold, clever and intelligent, able to piece together the facts from minimal evidence, observing every small detail and making deductions in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. In trying to make sense of this crime, he's confronted with no lack of suspects, but rather too many: Andersen's seductive sister Else (Winna Winifried), a true femme fatale; the gas station owner Oscar (Dignimont); Jojo (Michel Duran), the gas station attendant who flirts with Oscar's wife when no one (except the audience) is looking; the bourgeois Michonnet (Jean Gehret). All these people act suspiciously, creeping around, dropping knowing comments; they all seem to have some secret, to be willfully drawing suspicion to themselves, wandering through the foggy nights with guns, poisoning bottles of beer, smuggling contraband. Maigret seems to have stumbled into a confluence of odd events and shady characters.

Renoir builds this atmosphere brilliantly. His storytelling is extremely elliptical, marked by diversions that give the editing an abrupt, choppy rhythm (and it doesn't help that one reel of the film was lost outright, though such accidents seem appropriate for a film that already must have been especially loose and rough). When Andersen is first brought in for questioning, Renoir cuts away periodically to a curb-level shot of a local newsstand, capturing the passage of time through the transition from early edition to afternoon edition to evening edition to the evening paper getting swept away the next morning. Later, he frequently cuts away to some seemingly random event, some of the area's residents doing some inscrutable action, acting strangely. The night, and the fog hanging low over the tree-lined dirt roads, also serve as punctuation. At one point, in one of the most surreal interjections, Else is seen lying in her room, lazily smoking a cigarette, as a turtle crawls slowly along the bed next to her; it's baffling but evocative. The missing reel can only explain so much; at some point it becomes obvious that Renoir just doesn't seem especially concerned with narrative clarity. It's seldom clear who's shooting at whom until the obligatory parlor scene at the end, when the detective explains the film's events with such coherence and detail that one wonders how he managed to get all that out of this strange string of events.

That's part of the fun, of course, and Pierre Renoir plays the inspector with such charm and wit that his investigation, elliptical and aimless as it is, is seldom anything but entertaining to watch. Maigret always seems to have a little smirk on his lips, even when they're wrapped around a pipe. He's ahead of everyone else, and he knows it very well. Renoir lets the audience in on his deductions by drawing attention to the relevant objects at precisely the moment that Maigret notices them: a box of cigarettes that should be too expensive for its owner to afford regularly, a spare tire that doesn't match the truck that takes it. But the mystery isn't the point here. Instead, it's Renoir's power of observation that's being showcased. He's as interested in the details that reveal something about human behavior as the ones that reveal something about the mystery. This milieu is wonderfully detailed, with so much activity always going on in the fringes. It's rare that Renoir puts some action in the foreground and nothing else. The frame is always bustling, packed with nuances, like the way that, when Maigret calls the police station, the workers at the gas station go about their business all around him, while his boss at the station is surrounded by cleaning people going about their business behind him. Renoir's compositions are striking but somehow don't seem staged. There's messiness and imprecision in the way that he contrasts foreground and background, sometimes making the focus of the shot something other than what one would expect. When Maigret meets Else for the first time, the inspector and the Andersens are all in the blurry, out-of-focus background of the shot, while in the foreground, in crisp focus, a pile of furniture partially obscures the introduction. Renoir has this feel for making what might be considered "wrong" seem right: it feels real and unscripted, a casual introduction that will soon acquire a more pointed, artificial feel as Else begins her kittenish seduction of the inspector.

This is a film where setting and geography are very important. The crossroads, this small locale with a limited set of characters and places, is the site of most of the film's actions, and the denouement depends on the movement of characters between the area's three houses and the gas station. Earlier, the inspector's first visit to the Andersens' home is marked by his methodical examination of the drawing room, walking around the space as Else watches and describes some of the objects he sees; he stops by a music box, a record player, a box of cigarettes on the mantel, a tub of water in the next room. Renoir's camera motion and editing give the sequence the feel of an arc, tracing a curved line as the inspector circles the young woman, using the room and its objects to gauge her.

Else, of course, turns out to be crucial to the plot. She's a femme fatale in the classic sense, a treacherous woman with a dark past, and she's characterized as using sex to get her way. She tries it with the inspector, too, and nearly succeeds, and Renoir's presentation of her makes her so irresistible that it's not hard to see why: the light glistens off the buttons on her shirt, making her arms sparkle, and her bare leg, with a high stocking, is constantly creeping out into the open through the slit up the side of her dress. In the true noir tradition, she's the cause of all the problems for the men, trapping and corrupting men through her sexuality; the denouement is cleverly ambiguous, too, about whether she's really reformed in the end or not, as the inspector pushes her off in the right direction but not before her sly smile and instinctively sexy posture suggest that she's still got other ideas. It's typically sexist, to the extent that the femme fatale archetype is always about the dangerousness of female sexuality, but at the same time Else is such a compelling example of the form that she makes such concerns moot. Despite her few moments of weepy contrition, she enjoys being dangerous and destructive, and we enjoy watching her.

What's most refreshing about the film, though, is that Renoir approaches it all with such a wryly comic sensibility. Not that he doesn't take the mystery seriously, but that he's observing these noirish twists and turns with a slightly detached sense of irony. This comedic perspective is apparent in Maigret's slightly bumbling assistant Lucas (Georges Térof), who at one point has an entirely mimed and very funny interplay with Else when he believes that Andersen has poisoned a pot of tea; nothing is said, and the moment isn't emphasized, but is instead allowed to play out entirely in gestures in an offhand way. Later, a doctor (Max Dalban) shows up and keeps repeating the same laconic phrase ("Where is the patient?") over and over again to anyone who will listen, with the same drawling and intrinsically funny voice, and encounters only brush-offs and insults despite the fact that a man is badly wounded somewhere. Renoir also delights in the sarcastic, standoffish Jojo, who radiates thuggish charm and in free moments pinches the bottom of his boss' wife. These people may all turn out to be criminals and murderers of various stripes, but Renoir has some low-key affection for them too, mingled with satirical mockery. This film is smart, silly, funny, and exciting in roughly equal measures, using a mysterious murder and its aftermath as a way of closely examining this societal microcosm, pulling apart the seams to observe what's underneath.


I know I haven't lived up to my promise of posting, but I just haven't had the energy to do so lately. I had to pay my respects to the alpha mother of Black film, Lena Horne. I used this pic cause she looks almost exactly like my grandmother here--something I didn't notice until googling her picture. She looks so naturally beautiful, inside and out.

While I don't speak much on early Black cinema such as "Cabin In The Sky", etc. (though I really should), I have talked about Lena a few times. Like how sexy she was in that Gap commercial in 1997, though she was like 80, and wishing that if I'm blessed to live that long to be even half that sexy. I hope I am even half that sexy now!

Also, I talked about a biopic (which was supposedly confirmed by Oprah), that was to start filming in '08 with Alicia Keys playing Horne. Thank the most high that travesty didn't happen; sassy Lena was absolutely no joke, and didn't suffer fools easily, and to me, Keys would just not be the one for the job. But like I said back then--at least it wasn't Halle Berry.

I'm gonna sum up this tribute to "The Horne", as Fred G. Sanford of the respected Sanford And Son put it, by putting up the post from "D-Listed"

If you witnessed a tiny crystal bubble floating through Manhattan last night, it was Lena Horne gliding off to the Emerald City in the sky. Lena passed away on Sunday at the age of 92. Lena's rep wouldn't give anymore details.

Lena kicked down racial barriers when she became one of the first black performs to sing with an all-white orchestra in the 1940s. She was also the first black actress to land a long-term contract at a major movie studio. Lena starred in Panama Hattie, Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky and of course as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz. In the early 1960s, Lena became a prominent civil rights activist. If you haven't yet, you should read her obit at The New York Times.

Lena's Gap commercial:

And cause I'm a lover of Lena and Flip (TV Land, please bring back the Flip Wilson Show again!) here is another of her; singing a Kris Kristofferson song of all things:

Window Dressing

For those of you who were unable to attend Elle Decor's  Legends of La Cienega event that honored design in film and television, here are a few windows inspired by some of my favorite films and designed by some of LA's top set decorators and designers. Thanks go to my friend Victoria Amado for taking such good pictures! (Photo above s Peter Dunham's A Passage to India at Hollyhock).

Auntie Mame set at Baker  designed by Woodson & Rummerfield

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Richard Hallberg at Navona

Melissa Levander's tribute to the musical comedies of the fifties and sixties at Dragonette

Oliver Furth's interpretation of The Fountainhead at Bausman and Company

For more see Elle Decor's Sneak Peak video here.

William Lubtchansky, 1937-2010

The great cinematographer William Lubtchansky has passed away at the age of 72. He has had a long and fertile career working with Godard, Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Garrel, Varda, Otar Iosseliani, and countless others. In particular, Lubtchansky worked on multiple films for Godard and Rivette, including some of the former's most radical, adventurous work. Lubtchansky was the cinematographer for many of Godard's late 70s forays into video, and for the elegant 1990 masterpiece Nouvelle vague. He collaborated with Rivette over the course of several decades, shooting many of the great director's most enduring works, including almost all the films Rivette has made in recent years.

Below is a small tribute to some of the images left behind by this remarkable cinematographer, all from his work with Godard and Rivette, the two directors most closely associated (in my mind, anyway) with this genius behind the camera. Admire, especially, the muted but somehow eerily beautiful quality of light in these images, which are never flashy or glossy but always striking in more subtle ways.

Numéro deux (Godard, 1975)

Duelle (Rivette, 1976)

Noroît (Rivette, 1976)

Ici et ailleurs (Godard, 1976)

Comment ça va? (Godard, 1978)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Godard, 1980)

Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981)

Merry-Go-Round (Rivette, 1981)

Love on the Ground (Rivette, 1984)

Nouvelle vague (Godard, 1990)

La belle noiseuse (Rivette, 1991)

Joan the Maid I: The Battles (Rivette, 1994)

Secret défense (Rivette, 1998)

The History of Marie and Julien (Rivette, 2003)

Don't Touch the Axe (Rivette, 2007)