Archive for May 2011

The Universal Language

Last weekend my wife and I had time to watch movies together, something that doesn't happen as often as we'd like. After working, making dinner, cleaning up and waiting for everything and everyone to settle down, we usually have but a couple of hours of free time with which to paint and write, and we do. But on Memorial Day weekend we found time for not one but two movies together. We chose La Ceremonie and Topsy-Turvy and were, of course, more than happy with both choices as both are exceptional films. But what I kept asking myself, again and again, after watching them was, "Why didn't these get any acting nominations?"

I'm not going to go off (again) on how awful the selections are for the Oscars, year in and year out, or bemoan the fact that not one film nominated for Best Picture in 1999 can hold a candle to Topsy-Turvy, which wasn't nominated for the top award at all. I just want to say, quickly and cleanly, that the Academy members really need to start appreciating foreign language performances and films more often, as well as english language films from outside the United States, especially now that we are finally entering into a stage where practically everything is available to practically anyone who wants to see it.

They've done better by Britain over the years (you know, they use the same language and all, not that weird foreign stuff you have to read on the screen) but still, how any informed voting body can watch Topsy-Turvy and not find it in them to nominate anyone/everyone from the film is beyond me. Still, British film, on the whole, does fairly well, as witnessed by last year's winner, The King's Speech, for Best Actor, Director and Picture.

However, when it comes to foreign language, it's not just worse, it's downright soul-crushing. There are three winners in the history of the award: Sophia Loren for Two Women, Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose and [cringe] Roberto Benigni for [major cringe] Life is Beautiful. That's it. That's the sum total for foreign language performances taking home the Oscar. Okay, there are actually some others but they come from American films in which the performance is in another language (Robert de Niro for The Godfather, Part II, Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, and so on - the complete list here). That's different than being in a movie made and released in another part of the world.

So after watching these two films, Topsy-Turvy and La Ceremonie, I kept asking, "Why no acting nods? Why?" Because I'm here to tell you that everyone in Topsy-Turvy is superb and that Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire delivered the two finest performances of 1995 (date of European release) or 1996 (date of American release) in La Ceremonie and to not be nominated is a crime. But this has been happening and will continue to happen.

Back in 2006 Carice van Houten was stellar in Black Book and yet managed to evade the notice of the voting members of the Academy. And if you think it's a current trend (after all, Sophia won back in the sixties, remember?) then how about Giulietta Masina? She should have been nominated for La Strada, should have won for Nights of Cabiria and given a lifetime achievement award for everything else. But it was not to be. She was never nominated. Ever.

Or Anna Karina, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Anderson, Isabelle Adjani or Chieko Higashiyama. Oh, there are some nominations in there but no wins. Or how about Norma Aleandro for The Official Story? She wasn't even nominated!

Ah, hell, what's the point? I suppose now I could list all the male actors ignored but this isn't about ticking off each individual snub. You know it happens and that it will continue to happen and, really, it's time for it to stop. Foreign films used to be pretty damn inaccessible outside of big cities but now, even if it doesn't hit the local multi-mega-plex, it can be sent to your home or streamed directly to your television for a small fee.

It's time for Oscar to adapt. It already has the prestige of being the biggest award for film out there. Now, it could become (possibly) respectable by nominating from the world instead of just what played in Peoria. Drop the Foreign Language Oscar and start nominating those films alongside the Best Picture nominees. I'd love to see a non-English language film win once in a while. It would announce the Oscars were about the best in film from all over the world, not just the states. But even if that doesn't happen soon, and it won't, can we at least start acknowledging the great work of so many great actors who have the "misfortune" of not portraying characters who speak english? Personally, I don't care what language they speak as long as the performance is good and when it is, everyone understands anyway. The language of a great performance is universal.

Happy Together

The films of Wong Kar Wai are often about people who feel very intensely, who love and hate with a fiery passion that bursts out in the garish, expressive aesthetics of the films. In Happy Together, Wong examines this kind of passion especially intimately, through the gay relationship of Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), who visit Argentina together as a way to reinvigorate their on-again-off-again relationship, but wind up instead merely replaying the same troubles they always have. The film is a powerfully focused examination of this disintegrating, up-and-down relationship, capturing the violent emotions, the heartbreak, the longing and desire, and the fleeting moments of happiness that are like the glue holding this fractured romance together, momentarily bridging the gulf that's widening between these two men.

That gulf is represented, in many ways, by the waterfall at Iguaza, which they promise to visit together during one of their happier moments. The falls, seen on a lamp that Yiu-fai bought — a bright and gaudy representation of the falls, lit from within by a rotating cylinder that makes it seem as if the water is glistening in the sunlight — come to represent for Yiu-fai the potential for happiness and togetherness. This trip is something they planned to do together, a goal for their relationship, a sight they could share. Wong visually suggests that it's also an abyss that might swallow them whole. An image of the actual falls is inserted early on, as a response to the hopefulness that Yiu-fai has for the trip, but the image of the reality is very different from the lamp's sunny depiction of natural splendor. It's a sensuous color image of the waterfall, all dark blues and jungle greens, inserted into the mostly black-and-white opening section of the film. The camera slowly turns around the falls, capturing the slow churning of the water and, increasingly, the drifting white smoke that begins to fill the frame as Wong's graceful camera move pushes the tumbling water itself off to the sides. In stark contrast to Yiu-fai's optimistic desire to see this place with his lover, the image is dark and sinister, an image of destruction and apocalyptic grandeur: it is a seemingly bottomless pit, filled with smoke from the violent churning of the water as it crashes into the reservoir deep below. It's a gorgeous but foreboding image, a suggestion that what waits at the end of the trip is not reconciliation but erasure, heartlessness, brutality, the cold and cataclysmic violence of nature.

That image, so frightening and intense, lingers over the rest of the film. When that tracking shot of the falls predictably recurs at the end of the film, it provides a kind of melancholy closure, as one lover sees the falls in person, the water rushing down towards him, its spray drenching his face, while the other is left with the lamp, a gaudy and false facsimile of the real place. That's the essence of the film, the moment it's journeying towards, as Yiu-fai struggles against the confining boundaries of his unhappy relationship with Po-wing, a relationship where it's not clear who needs the other more, who's keeping who prisoner.

That dynamic plays out within some of Wong's most potent and beautiful images, as captured by his usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Though set mostly in Buenos Aires, Wong finds in this city a Southern hemisphere counterpart to his home base of Hong Kong, which perhaps explains the sequence where Yiu-fai, realizing that he is in the other half of the world from his home, imagines what Hong Kong would look like upside-down. The answer, as envisioned by Wong, is indeed turned upside-down but not otherwise that different, as he finds in Buenos Aires a similar late-night neon vibe, all hazy lights and poetically empty street scenes, occasionally interrupted by a bright, summery daytime scene where the sun fades the images to a white glare. That impression is introduced slowly into the film, as most of the early scenes play out in a crisp, high-contrast black-and-white, with only selected moments rendered in the characteristic warm, brilliant colors of the Wong/Doyle collaborations. When, after Yiu-fai and Po-wing are reunited following some time apart, the film explodes into full, sumptuous color during their cab ride back to Yiu-fai's apartment, it's as though the fullness of the couple's conflicted emotions have finally exploded to the surface of the film.

Despite these strong emotions, Happy Together is more relaxed and languid than previous Wong Kar Wai films, in which unpredictable violence could erupt at any moment, and this film looks forward to the slow, sensuous rhythms of In the Mood for Love rather than the the frantic tempi of most of the preceding films. The body of the film focuses on the lovers' uneasy reunion, as Yiu-fai tries to hold onto the unstable Po-wing, who obviously needs and cares for Yiu-fai but still can't help straining against the bounds of their relationship, going out, sleeping with other men, prostituting himself with American tourists. The relationship settles down slightly when Po-wing is beaten up by some of his clients for stealing a watch, and Yiu-fai tends to his lover during his recovery. The scenes of tension and arguing are offset by scenes of surprising tenderness and affection, like a sequence where Po-wing teaches Yiu-fai to dance, and the dance slowly becomes a gently swaying embrace. This scene, like the opening's disarmingly explicit and erotic sex scene between the men, establishes the stakes of their troubled love, the real depths of feeling upon which their often fractious relationship is built.

There's also tenderness in the depiction of Yiu-fai's friendship with his restaurant coworker Chang (Chen Chang), which is contrasted against the doomed love affair at the center of the film. As Yiu-fai's relationship with Po-wing collapses, his connection — platonic and hesitant, though not without suggestions of attraction and intimacy — with Chang deepens. Chang is a typically eccentric Wong character, a young man who had been nearly blind as a child and who had, as a result, developed extremely sensitive hearing and an ability to detect the smallest nuances of emotion in people's voices. He also, despite his displacement in South America, has the stability of home and family that the rootless Yiu-fai, wandering in a foreign land and disconnected from a family that's all but disowned him, only wishes he could someday return to. Those longings, the heartache and sadness of these aimless men, are expressed in typical Wong fashion. Chang carries a tape recording of Yiu-fai's tears to the "end of the world," a lighthouse in the far south of Argentina, where, it is said, his worries can be dissipated; it's a moment that looks forward to the similar scene at the end of In the Mood for Love. Po-wing also enacts the ritual of visiting his lover's apartment while Yiu-fai is not there, cleaning the place and rearranging things, a form of intimacy without direct contact that weaves through Wong's films.

Happy Together, like nearly all of Wong's films, is a deeply moving and rich work, a film about dislocation and the longing for stability. These characters have drifted far from home, isolated from their families and their homes, and they unsteadily try to make their way in an unfamiliar land even as their emotions overwhelm and unbalance them. Turned upside-down from their homes, they rush towards the churning abyss, towards the end of the world, and then pull back towards redemption and rebirth at the very last moment.

"Mom, a man just died."

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Homer are watching a McBain movie and cheering on McBain as he kills one enemy after another. Wanting to join in, Marge quips, after watching McBain snap a man's neck as he hurtles through the sky in a jet, "Now that's what I call breakneck speed!" She is only able to savor her quip momentarily as Bart turns to her and scolds, "Mom, a man just died."

Similarly, in the deleted scenes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, friends of anonymous henchmen, killed in the movie without a thought, mourn the death of their friends, husbands and fathers.

The joke in both, of course, is that the onscreen death of a faceless, nameless character in an action movie is suddenly given the kind of weight and thoughtful consideration normally reserved for a central character, one in which the audience cares for deeply. And the joke of my movie-watching life, as I grow ever older, is that I give random, nameless and faceless deaths onscreen the same kind of consideration The Simpsons and Austin Powers did as a clever ironic statement, only with me, there's no irony.

It's actually not all that new, having started years ago, but has grown increasingly worse as I get older. It first manifested itself in childhood as I wondered about this or that person being killed by the likes of James Bond and wondering, briefly, fleetingly, "What's his story?"

The first time it ever truly took hold of me was during the viewing of a perfectly wretched catastrophe of a movie, Nothing but Trouble. It was the mid-nineties, I was up late flipping through the channels and on HBO there was this movie, written and directed by Dan Aykroyd, and I quickly realized it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen. Needless to say, I kept watching. Like the driver slowing down to see how bad the carnage is alongside the road after a traffic accident, I wanted to see just how deep into the abyss of badness this movie would plunge.

Early on some hot shots in a sports car get pulled over by the lone police officer in town, John Candy. They're snorting coke and have plenty of drugs and it's implied they deal. They've got two women with them and they're armed. Candy arrests them and brings them before the horrifying town judge/dictator, played by Dan Aykroyd, who summarily executes them. They are sent onto a treadmill/ride into a shredder. This is played as a joke.

Okay, time for some personal background, for both me and Dan. For my part, I have a sister who got heavily involved in drugs in her twenties and thirties. When I say heavily, I don't mean she smoked some pot like you or I did in college or had the occasional hash brownies. No. I mean she was addicted to all manner of drugs, particularly cocaine, and unlike addicts you may have known, my sister married a drug dealer and was pursued, surveilled and eventually arrested by the F.B.I. After turning evidence and being released she sunk into alcoholism and eventually, unable to hold down a job, moved back in with my parents. The drugs she did had severe physical repercussions and now she suffers from brain seizures but there is a plus side to all this: She completely cleaned herself up. She's been sober now for more than eleven years, and while she still lives with my parents thanks to her neurological condition, she is drug-free and helping out my elderly parents as they get older and their health declines.

Now for Dan. He was close friends with John Belushi and despises drug use and drug dealers. Thanks to Cathy Evelyn Smith serving up a too potent speedball, his friend John Belushi lost his life. While she served time for this on manslaughter charges, it can never bring Belushi back. His life is gone, forever. Dan Aykroyd hates dealers. I get that and I sympathize. And I understand, that's where the scene comes from. It comes from the anger and hatred he holds for people who deal in death, at least in some cases.

But when I watched that scene, all I could think of was, "Those two women, why'd they get killed? Because they made the wrong choice? Lots of people make perfectly horrific choices and recover, grow up and turn themselves around. They chose to be with these loser drug dealers, like my sister did. I don't think they deserve to die for that."

Now, I know, it's all a little heavy for a throwaway scene in a perfectly rotten movie and perhaps you're thinking, "Greg, geez, come on, lighten up!" And you're right because I'm saying it too, which is why I'm writing this piece in the first place. Because what started in Nothing but Trouble has continued and I repeatedly find myself asking, even of several supposedly "bad" characters, "That person just died, doesn't anyone care?"

And to be sure this is all perfectly understood, I'm NOT talking about central characters or major supporting characters or even minor supporting characters. That's NOT what I'm talking about. With those you DO feel something and often are meant to. I'm talking about characters that the writer, director and actors want to be nameless and faceless. The characters of whom the audience is completely indifferent. Characters played by actors you will never know and whose credit listings are along the lines of "Man #3." I'm talking about THOSE characters. More often than not, lately, their onscreen deaths really bother me.

The most recent example of this came in the movie Kick-Ass, which came to theatres already swirling in controversy over the language and violence dispensed by the eleven year old character Hit Girl, played by then 13 year-old Chloë Moretz. The movie (from the comic book of the same name) deals with ordinary people taking on the personas of super heroes in the real world, a world filled with violence and danger. There is no "cartoon" violence in the movie. Blood flies, guts spill. It is exceptionally violent and while some critics, most notably Roger Ebert, found it morally offensive, I did not, unless you count the death of a certain nameless, faceless character. Then maybe I do but for the reasons I've outlined here, not because Kick-Ass is any different in this respect than any other action movie. It's just that in Kick-Ass, it seems more real and, thus, more impactful.

The death to which I'm referring is particularly troublesome for me because of another important plot line set up by the film. Here's the setup: Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a New York teenager who decides to become a superhero named Kick-Ass. Among his first assignments is to help out a girl he long been secretly in love with, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). She's been mixed up with a guy she wants to stop seeing and asks Kick-Ass to get that message to him. Kick-Ass goes to see the guy, Rasul (Kofi Natei) who is in an apartment with several other unsavory characters and they all appear to be drug-dealers. Kick-Ass is grabbed by them and about to be killed when eleven year old Hit Girl shows up and proceeds to viciously slaughter all of them with a mounted hunting knife. Finally, she turns her attention to the lone female in the apartment who breaks a bottle to try and defend herself before running to the door. She then tries to get it open, terrified, until Hit Girl pulls the knife mount apart, revealing another knife inside, and proceeds to skewer the poor girl before pulling the blades out and casually walking away as her lifeless body falls to the floor.

Ha, ha! She hooked up with the wrong people and now will never have a chance to learn from that and grow as a person because an 11-year-old girl decided it was time for her to die, never to experience life again. Ha, ha! Oh man, that shit is funny, huh?

Okay, it's not that funny but could be depending on your point of view, I guess. The problem with this scene is that the whole reason Kick-Ass is taking on Rasul in the first place is because Katie, the good girl of the movie, was mixed up with him! In other words, the movie is flippantly killing off one girl with Rasul, treating it as a joke that it believes the audience will follow along for the ride because, after all, she's mixed up with a drug dealer, so let her die! But wait! Katie was too! The whole thing feels more like bullshit Hollywood moralizing than anything else.

It's the same bizarre duality Hollywood has exhibited for years: Film folks get mixed up in drugs but portray people mixed up in drugs as evil. Film folks enjoy unimaginable wealth but often portray the wealthy as evil. Film folks sleep with a great many people and... well, you get the picture. There's a lot of projection going on in Hollywood, and not just the kind where reels get changed.

Of course, let's be honest: We've all laughed at people getting killed in films. As referenced earlier, the Bond films have made an artform out of turning a nameless character's death into a joke. One of the more famous examples comes from the beginning of Goldfinger in which Bond electrocutes a man in a bathtub and walks away shaking his head saying, "Shocking." This guy, whoever he was, was clearly in the business of killing people and, frankly, I don't care what happens to him. Likewise for the dealers in Kick-Ass. They are, we can assume, physically dangerous men who have killed and will kill again. It's the girl I have problems killing. The girl who, like Katie, hooked up with someone bad but unlike Katie, wasn't smart enough to unhook herself in time. Had I been the director, I would have had her get the door open and flee. We'd never see her again and leave the theatre thinking, perhaps, she turned her life around after that terrifying incident. Despite all the violence, mayhem and bloodshed in that scene, it is only her death that bothers me and I think it was a mistake to leave it in.

But lest we think this is some new trend in movies or that my dismay is reserved only for the female cohorts of drug dealers, I should say it's been going on since the beginning of cinema. In the film Heaven Can Wait, not the 1978 Warren Beatty film but the 1943 Don Ameche film, the lead character played by Don Ameche is speaking with Satan, played by the great Laird Cregar. As Ameche speaks with an elderly woman (assigned to Hell in the afterlife) Cregar bores of her and presses a button that opens a trap door releasing her to her eternal torment with a blood-curdling scream. After this I couldn't focus on anything else in the movie. All I could think was, "Right now, at this moment, she's being tortured, brutalized and tormented. This will go on forever and why? Because she was a gossip?" That's what's implied: She will be physically tortured for eternity because she was a busybody. And her release into Hell by Cregar is played as a joke. Had Lubitsch made her a rapist or a murderer or a gangster or, fuck, anything but a gossip I would have taken to the joke better. But by making her so innocuous, the joke was given an unfortunate weight, a weight that works against comedy. Well, for weirdos like me who focus on this kind of thing.

For the most part, this is all reserved for moments where a person's death is played off as a joke in a reasonably realistic way. That is, Rowan Atkinson backing off of the cliff in Hot Shots, Part Deux is played so ridiculously that the only thing to do is laugh since no one in the movie feels real in any way, and isn't meant to. But when the guy with the fancy swordwork gets casually shot by Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I think, "Damn, it's over for him now. He's dead." Of course, I laugh at the scene anyway, just like I'm supposed to, probably because Spielberg is skilled enough to keep just enough distance from it to make it work. The death isn't terrifying (like the woman sucked down to her torment screaming in Heaven Can Wait) or bloodthirsty (like the drug moll in Kick-Ass) and the swordsman isn't in closeup when it happens. But it doesn't mean I still don't think about it, if only for a moment.

A part of me is utterly annoyed with myself for these new found feelings of empathy for faceless extras in the movies but another part of me thinks it's perfectly normal and I'm happy I don't have a cold, mechanical reaction to anyone's death onscreen. I'm well into middle-age, have children on their way out the door and into their own lives and a lovely wife with whom I look forward to growing old. If that means I spend a little more time thinking about life in a way that makes casual onscreen death seem unnerving, so be it. It's not going to kill me.

The Conversations #26: Terrence Malick

The latest conversation between Jason Bellamy and me has now been published at The House Next Door. With The Tree of Life just now arriving in at least some theaters, we take the opportunity to address the first four features of director Terrence Malick: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. It's a lengthy overview of the director's career and aesthetic so far, and within the next month we'll be following up with a second conversation, focusing on The Tree of Life itself.

As always, we welcome your input, so go take a look and join the conversation. Malick is a direct who seems to inspire great passion and affection, but also some equally strong dislike. We think that both sides of that debate are likely to find some ideas to agree with and take issue with in this conversation, so we hope there will be a lively conversation in the comments.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

ICO Cultural Exhibition Course, Day 5: The End

Yesterday was the final day in the ICO Cultural Exhibition Course and we finished with an overview of the marketplace and looking towards the future.

To this end, we had a panel discussion titled ‘The Way Forward for Cultural Cinema” with Eddie Berg (pictured), Artistic Director of the BFI, Ed Fletcher, from Soda Pictures, and Ian Christie, respected film historian and Vice-President of Europa Cinemas. It started with Ian’s presentation, which in true academic style, delivered no strong opinions, but asked a lot of questions; good questions. “Does film education translate into cinema admissions?” “Will alternative content spell the end of arthouse cinema?”

Ed Fletcher, never a man to withhold his opinions, presented the antithesis of Ian’s own talk with a strong rant about the difficult arthouse market, placing a lot of the blame for things at exhibitors door. He pointed to the change in ownership of many of the main exhibitors as an explanation for what he sees increasingly commercial programming. I found his talk quite condescending and arrogant, but a lot of that might have to do with his own personality.

Eddie Berg followed with a very different approach. He speaks in the way that people in very senior executive positions do, in small sentences that are loaded with meaning, a very logical (and some would say dry) and circular way that you really have to focus to get your head around. He talked about three different venues, the Bell Light box in Toronto, the Eye in Amsterdam and the American Museum of Moving Image in New York. He then explained the BFI’s own plans for a National Film Centre and the balance between the need for a monolithic center and the lack of regional film centers and even screens.

After our break we presented our fictional projects to the class, but I think fatigue had set in, especially as we were locked in the awful basement spaces all day with no air. The class looked a bit ragged and was aching for our final drinks, which followed in the studio space upstairs.

Overall, I think that given my master’s degree and my experience in Venice, I didn’t get as much out of this course as some of the others, but I met some fantastic people and witnessed some lively debates about the industry in the UK. I was also trying to gather as much info and contacts ahead of my new job in Stratford, which starts next week.

We need more, not less exhibitor training, so I hope that Skillset continue to support this important work in the future and there is a Cultural Exhibition Course in 2012.

An Inside Peek

Whether you are in the market or not, nothing is more voyeuristic than looking into homes for sale and even more so when the owner is a celebrity.

Sally Field's 5,964 square foot house in Malibu is on the market and can be yours for a mere 5.9 million. The house is complete with a horse paddock and tennis courts and with the recent cancellation of Brothers & Sisters, perhaps the price will come down:)

Featured in Architectural Digest last March, Jennifer Anniston's tranquil mid-century modern home in Beverly Hills takes zen to a new level. Designed by interior designer Stephen Shadley, the five bedroom- eight bathroom spread goes for a mere 42 million.

The 9,000 square foot house that Kiss From a Rose and Project Runway built (that would be singer Seal and model/tv/tycoon Heidi Klum) is available in Beverly Hills. Complete with the prerequisite swimming pools and added bonus of covered loggias, asking price is 6.9 million.

My personal favorite is singer Katy Perry's Christmas gift of a home (given by her then-boyfriend-now-husband Russell Brand). The Roman style estate is on the market for 3.395 million in Los Feliz and has over twenty sets of french doors. The exquisite exterior features a pool and a stone dining pergola along with a three car garage (used to store Perry's vast collection of costumes).

And last but not least, the former Pacific Palisades Mediterranean estate of the "Governator" and Maria Shriver (1986-1991) is on the market for 23.5 million and yes, this is the house where the infamous housekeeper was first hired. The 2.5 acre compound is complete with a large lawn for horse jumps, duck pond and seven bedrooms which could keep a even the most efficient housekeeper occupied for days.

You can see more celeb abodes on HGTV/Front Door's fun website Celebrity Homes here.

Photo Credit: HGTV, MLS

ICO Cultural Exhibition Course, Day 4

Today was all about marketing and PR and we kicked off with a talk by Julia Short, former MD for Verve Pictures. She presented a case study of how they handled the release of THE ARBOR. She was terrifically candid, with many of the best things she said preceded by “I really shouldn’t tell you this”, which is exactly the kind of thing the trainees are looking for. Some of the best anecdotes came from her time at Polygram, when too much money was paid for mediocre films (MULHOLLAND FALLS, anyone?).

After that Clare Wilford, a freelance publicist who has worked on our own CINECITY Film Festival, outlined her ‘rules of the game’ when it came to generating press coverage and interest in your event/venue/festival. Her approach is very straight-forward and rooted in real-life experience. I attended a course with Clare some years ago and although it was familiar territory, it reminded me of some fundamentals.

The post-lunch slot was a workshop on solving fictional press problems, with a Ken Russell retrospective being my group’s homework. Somehow we ended up proposing that staff dress as nuns. Don’t ask.

Finally, the groups formed yesterday to workshop the course’s project reunited and we started working on our fictional programming exercise, which is a lot of fun because it’s basically just a group of smart, film-literate people brainstorming fun programming, marketing and event ideas. Something I usually do in my own head.

After class I popped into the BFI Filmstore and picked up an Eisenstein box set (yesterday I bought Ballad of a Soldier and Destiny of Man, two other Soviet classics) – thank goodness the course is over tomorrow or I would spend too much money.

Tomorrow: Ed Flechter from Soda Pictures discusses the future of cultural cinema, and we present our homework!

Record Club #2: Brand New on June 27

Brand New - The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (2006)

Thank you to everyone who made the first Record Club discussion, on the Congos' reggae classic Heart of the Congos, a big success. It was a fun and interesting conversation and a fine start to this project.

Now it's time to announce the second pick for the club. Kevin Olson of the blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has chosen Brand New's album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. Kevin will be posting about the album on June 27, so if you're interested in participating, listen to the album before then and show up at Kevin's blog on that date to join the conversation. In the meantime, Kevin has posted an announcement about the album, so check it out.

If you'd like to promote the Record Club, you can display the banner below by pasting the code onto your own blog.

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ICO Cultural Exhibition, Day 3

Our third day on the course brought an area that perhaps is my weakest link: short, archive and moving image films. I’m a feature guy. We’ve shown some of these things in the past at the Dukes, mostly because of our relationship with the Screen Archive South East. Frank Gray, the archive director and also co-director of our Cinecity Film Festival, was here today to talk – and as always he was engaging and very non-didactic. Sue Porter, from the Moving Image Archive for Central England, made the somewhat arguable claim that “archive film has never been sexier”.

Then followed perhaps the juiciest bit of the day: Sandra Hebron, the director of the London Film Festival, pulled the curtain on how the UK’s largest international film festival is put together. What I didn’t realize is how much the LFF relies on sponsorship money: 50% of its budget. She then described the ‘arduous’ task of traveling the world’s best film festivals scouting for films all year long. The feeling in the room was not one I would describe as pity. One of the most interesting things she said was that the UK culture was undergoing a ‘festivalisation’, not just in film, but literature, music and art.

Mark Cosgrove from Watershed joined the discussion halfway through and described how the Encounters Short Film Festival was created and where it stands now. He resents the thematisation of programming and described his approach as ‘pix n’mix”.

We were then moved into the basement for a talk with Adam Pugh, former director of the AURORA animation festival in Norwich who derisorily described Cinema City as ‘conventional’ which didn’t impress a City Screen man like me. Straight afterwards we were ushered into NFT3 for a screening of short films. Apart from the first two films, The Anthem by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Guest of Honor by Miguel Calderon, every single one of the films confirmed all my prejudices about artist moving image and short films.

Things got practical after that: we’ve been broken up into groups and have some workshop homework to do. That’s always the best part about any course like this because you get to know your cohort and become animated and inspired.

Tomorrow it’s all about marketing and PR. Stay tuned!

Culural Exhibition, Day 2

Our second day kicked off with one of my main areas of interest: audience development. David Sin walked us through the basics, and I took advantage and tried to gather as much knowledge as I could in advance of the new challenges we’ll be facing in Stratford. He underlined the importance of market research and audience surveys, which I think should be at the heart of any venue’s work. Being audience-led is key.

Gaylene Gould (pictured) joined us for a talk on Cultural Diversity, a topic that makes most people’s eyes roll because it has become synonymous with public policy talk, and often is not rooted in real work and/or results. But Gaylene brought a fresh and smart approach which made us gasp and laugh in equal measures. “Film, of all art forms, I find is the most bigoted and the most racist.” She said, right before I asked how to connect with black audiences in East London. She gave me some top notch pointers. “For starters, if you’re whole team looks like you, you’re in trouble.” Noted.

Then we had very interesting panels on accessing disabled audiences, young people and children. Cathy Poole from the Curzon in Clevedon showed us an amusing home video which revealed that they have the same exact ancient ticket machine (AUTOMATIC) that we have! This session also gave us one of my favorite quotes of the day, courtesy of Martin Grund from Leeds Young People’s Festival: “you wouldn’t expect the world to only read books from one city in one country” on Hollywood’s film dominance.

The last session for the day was the distributor’s perspective: Dave Jarmain from Universal (my favorite major), Matt Smith from Lionsgate and Colin Burch from Verve. They outlined their business models and then we got on to the juicy stuff: distributors versus exhibitors. While they bemoaned the existence of windows, I pointed out that flexibility is needed both ways, specially when asking for all shows for weeks at a time. As always when you pit these two groups together, it gets fun, tense and “a little passive aggressive” as another trainee mentioned.

We finished off with a tour of the Roxy Bar and Screen near Bourough Market, an innovative and cool venue which, as it names suggests, is a bar first and a screen second. The owner and manager Phil Wood was a gracious host and apparently is a reader of this blog. Hi Phil!

Tomorrow, on Cultural Exhibition: Programming shorts, archive, festivals, moving image…

Still Reeling (in the movies)

It's been a tough month, what with obligations and parties and the busiest time of the year at work and promises to keep and miles to go and my horse thinking it queer and, really, just the whole goddamn thing. Seriously, go find a kit, get yourself a caboodle (Amazon has 'em cheap), combine the two and that's what I got in things to keep me busy. But I'm still watching, still thinking around the clock about movies, still trying to get excited for something, anything in this, my most dreaded movie season, the summer season. Really, there's just nothing I ever want to see in the summer season. It doesn't mean I don't usually find something worthwhile in the end but I never expect to and usually can't muster up enough excitement to look very hard anyway.

At home, I wait it out by watching, scanning, perusing or just glancing at hundreds of movies, all those now available to me on streaming whenever I want. Here are some things I observed last week:

Escape From New York: By god, it's still entertaining. It's still stupid as hell, too (I mean, seriously, the architecture, the center of commerce, the history, all of it thrown away to make a prison?! Hahahahaaaaa!) but damn, it's entertaining. The one area where the "New York as Prison" worked best when it was released was the wink and a nudge joke John Carpenter was making about New York already being halfway there anyway. Now, though, with the downtown area glossed up, Disneyfied and fun for the whole family, most people probably wouldn't realize there was ever a joke there.

The Blue Angel (Original German Version): The scene where the Professor (Emil Jannings) drops the cigarettes is a great moment. For those unfamiliar, he has to crawl under the table to pick them up while Lola (Marlene Dietrich) stays seated at the table smoking hers. Meanwhile her legs are down there, in his face, driving him crazy. It's a great shot by Sternberg, the once dignified professor, on his hands and knees, under the table at her feet while she goes about her business. Talk about defining a relationship in purely visual terms.

Easy Virtue: Silent Hitchcock melodrama. Not as bad as I'd heard. By any other director would have seemed decent. By Hitchcock's standards, fairly sluggish and dull. But the line Noel Coward pens for the closer is the ultimate in self-pitying mega-drama!

Greedy: Not much to say here except this: Phil Hartman, god what a loss!

Algiers: The moment where Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer first spy each other is fantastic. The camera focuses in on Lamarr lips as they widen to a smile. Boyer, meanwhile, is doing nothing but eyeing her jewelry.

When We Were Kings: The final fight and its analysis is a joy to behold but it should be noted: Norman Mailer does the worst Ali impersonation in the history of ever.

Finally, Ed Howard, the most prolific unpaid movie reviewer on the internet, has a music club now which I will be participating in but, alas, not this time or, at least, not on the first day. I dropped the ball, simply no way around it. I didn't get the album in time (though I do have it now) and still haven't listened to it what with everything going on. But, if you have listened to and/or know well the album Heart of the Congos by The Congos, by all means, hop over to Only the Cinema and join in the discussion. I'm sorry I missed it but will chime in later once I've listened to the album and formed something resembling a cogent opinion.

That's all for now. Back to work, watching movies and listening to The Congos.

ICO Cultural Exhibition Course, Day 1

Today was the beginning of the Independent Cinema Office’s Cultural Exhibition Course, held at the BFI Southbank. It runs till Friday, and I’ll be tweeting (via @splendorcinema) and blogging about it.

After a basic outline of the ins and outs of exhibition and distribution from the ICO’s David Sin (who was best when he went off script and told us the implications of the European Court case of pub landlady versus Sky), we had an interesting talk from Julie Pierce, Head of Programme Planning for the BFI.

As a massive fan of the BFI’s retrospectives and seasons, it was fascinating to hear how they put the programme together, with some of the seasons (like Godard) taking up to two years to research and book. They have 9 programmers for 4 screens, which is a luxurious amount of staff, and which allows them to put on such magnificent films.

Then we had an amusing presentation from Richard Boyd, Technical Manager at the BFI, who again, amazed us with the ridiculous amount of resources this venerable institution (rightly) has: £200,000 spent recently on two film projectors, and weekly testing of all equipment. Interesting to hear that the BFI Southbank has the only public license in the UK to screen nitrate film, a very flammable (and familiar to anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) and dangerous substance that hasn’t been used in film prints for 60 years.

After some lunch, former Dukes programmer and friend Jason Wood (now head of programming at Curzon) joined Tracey Hyde from Saffron Screen for a panel on programming. Jason is always a funny, engaging speaker, and he knows his stuff. He outlines some of the ambitious plans Curzon has in store: putting other distributor’s films on their On Demand service, programming the Cornerhouse in Manchester, opening new Curzon sites in University towns across the UK, and also their recent acquisitions in Cannes: Artificial Eye (Curzon’s sister company) will be distributing the Von Trier, the Dardennes, the Kaurismaki, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. That’s an impressive lineup.

Some of Jason’s pearls of wisdom for the day: “There’s a danger that cinema will become alternative content”. And “A Judi Dench film means an onslaught of comfortable shoes” and when talking about the danger of losing young audiences to On Demand: “ There’s no audience to be lost, cause they’re not there”.

We finished the day with an interesting panel on non-theatrical exhibition, which included the Flatpack Festival, the ‘open-source’ Star and Shadow venue in Newcastle and the Slough Film Society (which is apparently filled with Communists!).

Next, on Cultural Exhibition: Audience Development. Cutural Diversity, Programming for children and the distributor’s perspective!

Record Club: The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

The Congos - Heart of the Congos (1977)

The Congos was the reggae vocal trio of Cedric Myton, Ryodel Johnson, and Watty Burnett, and Heart of the Congos was their debut album, recorded and produced by the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark studio. The album is justifiably considered a classic of the genre, built on the gorgeous multi-layered vocal harmonies of the singers and some of Perry's very best production work. Perry was known for an energetic, eclectic sound (especially on his albums with his studio band the Upsetters) but on Heart of the Congos he sympathetically tailors his production to the much more low-key and spiritual vibes of the Congos. The production is still rich and remarkably detailed — one need only listen to the albums the Congos later made without Perry to hear how much depth he brought to these songs — but it never overwhelms the group's lovely vocals.

The first track, "Fisherman," immediately establishes the signature sound of this disc. The music slowly churns and skates along, with drums occasionally rolling and cresting like waves, while Cedric Myton's pure, high falsetto (the most distinctive sound of the group) glides above the guitar. Perry augments the stripped-down groove with chiming bells and percussive accents, along with an occasional piercing sound effect, but the emphasis remains on the vocals. The contrast between Myton's falsetto and the more moderate tenor of Johnson is the essential sound of the Congos, with Burnett's husky baritone periodically joining in for an even more dramatic contrast. Burnett was brought into the Congos by Perry for this session, and when his deep tones unexpectedly enter for a verse towards the end of this first song, the effect is startling, a sudden drop from Myton's high, soaring tones to this rich low-register drone.

On the second track, "Congoman," Perry's production is even more basic: a simple and repetitive drum figure provides a constant percussive base for the harmonies that the vocalists weave through and around this foundation. The music has hints of African chanting and tribal rhythms in both the vocals and the drums, and the effect is haunting and melancholy, suggesting dense jungles and mysterious darkness. The opening seconds of the song provide a perfect example of Perry's production genius: that simple beat kicks in immediately, and it will scarcely change over the course of the track's 6+ minutes, but a mere 20 seconds in the beat suddenly drops out and the vocals, sounding eerie and distant, introduce the song's lyrical and melodic theme before a dubby wash ushers the beat back in. Such little touches, like this slight variation from the song's solid foundation, are the mark of Perry's clever, detail-oriented production style.

There's a lot of variety on this album, even while it sticks close to the general territory of soulful, spiritual reggae with tastefully subtle production. "Children Crying" backs Johnson's lead vocals with a rich stew of backing vocals, a steady groove, and an odd moaning echo that sounds like a cow's cry. "The Wrong Thing" rides in on a wave of tinkling cymbals, with Myton vocalizing a few playful, wordless beeps right at the start. "Solid Foundation" (the final song on the original album, though the reissues have added at least 2 bonus tracks) is perhaps the best showcase for Myton's falsetto, with his clean high tones answered and overlapped with a chorus of backing vocals. The vocal interplay is very complex: the lead and the backing vocals engage in call-and-response sessions that bleed together until they're layered rather than answering one another.

Although I've picked out a few highlights so far, I could easily keep praising each song individually. The first two songs provide one of the best possible one-two opening salvos, but even more remarkable is that the album doesn't taper off after that. Heart of the Congos is the rare album where every song is a carefully polished gem in itself — the bouncy, deceptively cheery "La La Bam-Bam" (with its lyrics about Biblical betrayals) is probably the only song here that I don't absolutely adore, and even that's a pretty solid song.

Rather than continue to gush, though, one issue I'd like to raise is the album's lyrical content. The lyrics are almost exclusively spiritual and religious, expressions of the musicians' Christian-derived Rastafari faith. One aspect of the album that has often intrigued me is the fire-and-brimstone exultation of eternal punishment for the unfaithful, as expressed especially on the back-to-back songs "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow." Both songs are rooted in exclusionary religious fervor; there's a sense running through both songs that the faithful should celebrate the consignment of the unfaithful to eternal fire. It's the kind of regressive religious idea that has always troubled me, in any context, and it especially produces a lot of cognitive dissonance when it's coupled to an absolutely beautiful song like "Can't Come In," a song that despite its lyrical content I find strangely moving simply for the quality of the voices alone. I'm not saying this is a big problem or anything, by any means. I love this album, and the lyrics are the least significant component of this music in my opinion. It's just something I've often thought of regarding this album, and I wonder if anyone else had any thoughts about some of the lyrical themes.

Heart of the Congos is, to my taste, one of the greatest of all reggae albums. Lee Perry produced a handful of other classic front-to-back albums (by artists like Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Heptones and Junior Murvin) but as good as those are, I'd argue that this recording's mix of subdued but distinctive production with the unparalleled voices of the Congos constitutes a peak of the genre. The album was not heralded in its time, unfortunately. Perry was in the midst of a dispute with Island Records that prevented a wide release, and the lackluster limited release the album did receive prompted the Congos to break with Perry for subsequent albums. It's a shame, because on their own the Congos never managed to make another statement as sparkling and powerful as this one, and it took many years for Heart of the Congos to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.

I hope some people love this album as much as I do, and I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts. I know some people have a negative perception of reggae, so if there's anyone like that here, did Heart of the Congos change your mind or merely confirm your distaste for the genre? Was anyone inspired to check out more reggae based on this? Or are there some other reggae fans here who probably already know and love this disc? Anyone is welcome to join the discussion, I look forward to hearing from you all!

Record Club: Monday, May 23

This is a reminder that on Monday, May 23, the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club will be kicking off with its first post, a discussion of Heart of the Congos, the debut album by reggae vocal group the Congos. The Record Club will have a monthly posting schedule, with a different blogger selecting an album to discuss each month. I selected this first album, and Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies will be picking the second album, which should be announced around the beginning of June and discussed sometime around the beginning of July.

If you'd like to participate in the club, all you have to do is listen to the chosen album and then come to the hosting blog (right here this month!) to discuss it. The discussion is not limited to Monday, by any means, so feel free to stop by anytime after the initial post to join the conversation.

By Night With Torch and Spear

The collage films of the filmmaker-artist Joseph Cornell, assembled from found footage — mangled commercial and documentary films and occasional specially shot sequences provided by Cornell's filmmaker friends — are strange masterpieces of excavation and recontextualization. Cornell's films forage through the ephemera of film's accumulated history to pick out the moments of eerie, potent magic, augmenting and intensifying that magic through judicious editing and bursts of vibrant, artificial color. By Night With Torch and Spear was itself excavated from Cornell's massive private collection of film reels, discovered only after his death in the mid-70s and preserved by Anthology Film Archives. It is a stunning, mysterious film, one of Cornell's most beautiful and poetic works. It is only eight minutes long but contains layers upon layers of suggestions and emotions.

The film is assembled entirely from snippets of industrial documentaries and educational films, seemingly from the silent era. In the first long sequence — after a first shot in which a pointer traces along a white sheet marked with black dots, as though instructing the viewer to watch closely — an industrial process runs backwards and upside-down, its images sensuously drifting in reverse. A large pot of molten metal hangs upside-down, the boiling liquid within strangely pulsing downward, as though straining to pour out of its container, but somehow defying the laws of gravity to remain in place. Showers of sparks rain down like fiery comets, coming together into a yellow-hot center that then rushes back into the factory machinery like a fireball. Rivers of molten metal run upstream, up long conveyor belts, then crawl up the sides of a container, as though the industrial plant is full of an inexplicable liquid alien intelligence, an amorphous being moving of its own volition in defiance of the laws of physics. Cornell's editing and his manipulations of these images are deceptively simple, but the effect is anything but. These grainy, distorted images, discombobulated and flipped around, become almost magical, their poetic effect very far removed from the staid documentary context in which this footage originally resided.

This is the world made strange, an ultimate surrealist statement. Ordinary industrial machinery, seen through a bright pink filter, seems to glow with otherworldly energy, and the men tending to these strangely vibrant, effervescent industrial playgrounds are like sorcerers, conjuring inexplicable phenomena. Cornell explicitly compares his manipulated industrial age images to a shot of Native Americans silhouetted against a darkening night sky. Even that image isn't as simple as it seems, since the playful sprinting and obviously celebratory mood of these headdress-wearing figures suggests that perhaps they're not even genuine Native Americans, but children playing at a role, enacting games of cowboys and Indians like in a Hollywood movie. The movies certainly inform Cornell's vision to a great extent. In his most famous film, Rose Hobart, he clipped images of the titular silent era actress out of a melodramatic epic, out of context, honing in on the core of the cinema as a magic of faces, gestures, single dramatic images rather than stories.

In By Night With Torch and Spear, the cinema burbles up from the film's subconscious in the form of found and recontextualized intertitles, often manipulated in the same ways as the images themselves, turned around backward and upside-down, often flashed onto the screen in an almost subliminal fashion, too fast to read, certainly too fast to decode the mirrored text. In any event, the titles, even when decoded (thanks to a DVD pause function Cornell didn't plan for) are banal and generic, snippets of pseudo-scientific language or context-free bits of information about a machine, an insect, a group of people. Cornell treats these fragments of ordinary texts like incantations, a mysterious language to be deciphered, curious transmissions from deep within the cinematic subconscious, flashing like lightning across the surface of the film and then vanishing just as quickly back into the depths from which they emerged.

Later in the film, Cornell inserts ethnographic images of a man playing a non-Western instrument, and then the image that gives the film its name, a shadowy nighttime sequence of some men fishing by torchlight with a long wooden spear. This shot is preceded by the only easily intelligible intertitle in the film, and the most poetic as well: "by night with torch and spear." Cornell's images bring together Western industrial society with the amorphous Other, the exotic and the foreign. In essence, he exoticizes what would be, to Western audiences, the familiar, by making the processes of commerce and industry seem as haunting, and as haunted, as the exotic images of foreign lands and foreign people.

These images also exist on a continuum with Cornell's found footage of insects, seen up-close and made even more terrifying by the application of negative-image filters that make it seem as though the film is delving into a truly alien landscape, a barren gray moonscape populated by exoskeleton-clad monsters with fuzzy feelers and click-clacking mandibles. The film represents a journey from the working class factory to the Old West or the exotic Orient, stopping in Egypt for a desert scene replete with camels, then venturing deep into the unseen underworld of insects and then beyond, to a final image in which abstract dots pulsate like subatomic particles dancing to an unheard and unfathomable music.

Cornell sees the cinema as a transmitter of poetic distortions, as a massive bank of images to be combed for magical moments, moments that can be amplified and reworked into something epic and unfamiliar. His was a totally original and remarkable cinema, and this short is perhaps one of the finest examples of his unparalleled ability to dig out the strange essence at the core of the ordinary.

Bradley Cooper, The Interview

Since I have been traveling and playing a game of catch-up this week, I will make this post short and sweet. Just in time for The Hangover Part 2 -- here is my interview on Bradley Cooper for American Airlines's magazine Celebrated Living. Enjoy!

The Hangover Part 2 hits theaters May 26th, let the madness begin.

Photo Credits: Celebrated Living, Warner Brothers


Roberto Rosselini's Paisan was his second postwar film, made after his scrappy, low-budget Rome Open City, which was filmed in the immediate aftermath of World War II with any film stock he could scrape together. Paisan is similarly rough and minimalist, continuing the ragged neorealist style that Rosselini inaugurated with his postwar work. The film consists of six tales set during the Allied liberation of Italy from the German occupation, focusing largely on interactions between Italian citizens and American soldiers, with the German troops a constant peripheral presence and lingering threat. The film is an interesting fusion of neorealist naturalism, melodrama and sentimentality. The stories Rossellini is telling are melodramatic rather than naturalistic, built around ironic reversals and stock characters, and the emotions evoked are generally broad and universal rather than specific. The film is more about the general experience of the liberation than it is about any particular stories or characters from this period, so its characters are fairly generic and its dialogue is mostly functional and rote.

Rossellini was working with a mix of actors and non-professionals, drawing from the ranks of the American soldiers still stationed in Italy to portray the Americans in the film. But the effect isn't quite realistic so much as amateurish; almost all of the Americans turn in awkward, stiff performances and not all of the Italians are much better. The amateur performances add to the sense of a film captured on the fly, with whatever materials are at hand, whatever locations can be filmed and whatever people are around, most of them real people who'd really lived through some version of the events depicted here. The film follows the structure of the Americans' northward advance through Italy, with each episode set in one town along the route of the military campaign, from the very south in Sicily to the very north in the Po River region. As the film progresses, and as Rossellini depicts the military struggle proceeding north, the relations between the American military and the Italian people become closer, less prone to misunderstandings and miscommunication. In the first three episodes of the film, the language barrier and differences in attitudes prevent a true connection between the Italian people and the Americans liberating the country, but in the final three episodes those divisions are increasingly erased.

The climax of the first tale is a touching scene between the American soldier Joe (Robert Van Loon) and the Italian girl Carmela (Carmela Sazio), who had been guiding a group of American troops through a dangerous area where only she knew the way. At one point, the other soldiers go out scouting, leaving Joe behind with Carmela to hide in a hilltop fort until the rest of the troops return. Joe doesn't speak any Italian, and Carmela doesn't speak any English, and yet the two sit side by side, trying to communicate, speaking to one another without really understanding anything of what the other is saying. They occasionally get a word or two, or can communicate through gestures and pantomime. The scene is very moving in its quiet, simple way, as they attempt to overcome the language barrier between them and make a connection. Rossellini stages the scene in one long take, a steady shot of the two people sitting next to one another by a window, talking, struggling with their words, smiling and sharing stories about their lives that, for the most part, they know the other person doesn't understand. It's a wonderful scene, and the warm emotions of this moment set up the heartbreaking ironies that follow from it in subsequent scenes, when a group of German soldiers stumble across the fort. The episode ends, not with communication but with further misunderstandings; that brief moment of frustrated connection is extinguished by violence.

In the second story, a black American soldier (Dots Johnson), drunk and disoriented, is taken advantage of by kids and street thugs — disturbingly, a couple of hustling kids try to sell him to the highest bidder in a back alley — and eventually winds up being led around by the bratty Pasquale (Alfonsino Pasca). As in the first episode of the film, the focus of the story is the inability to communicate across the language barrier between Italian and English. Sitting atop a pile of rubble — Rossellini filmed in the real streets of wasted Italian cities — the soldier entertains the boy with a frenzied re-enactment of a naval battle, in which the boy understands no more than a few words but enjoys the spectacle anyway, laughing and smiling. What he misses, of course, are the notes of pathos in the man's story, his drunken musings on home and the poverty and squalor that await him back in America. But the soldier doesn't really get the kid either, not until the end of this story when he finally confronts the reality of how so many poor, displaced Italian people are living: gangs of kids without parents, families without homes, large makeshift communities assembled from whatever trash is at hand.

In the third story, the American soldier Fred (Gar Moore) is picked up by the Italian prostitute Francesca (Maria Michi), who takes him home and listens to his story about the early days of the war. He tells her about a girl he met back then who was beautiful and kind and embodied, for him, the happiness of the liberation. Now it's six months later and Fred has grown cynical and exhausted, and he looks at the Italian people, and especially all the girls who have become prostitutes catering to the American GIs, with contempt and disgust. Of course, Francesca is the girl from the story, and once again this episode turns on a very O. Henryesque irony, based on the soldier's failure to recognize the girl he so badly wanted to see again. He also fails to recognize, as the black soldier had, the difficulties of surviving in the postwar chaos, and he has no sympathy for girls like Francesca who do the best they can to get along in this difficult situation. This sequence, which takes place mostly inside and is noticeably glossier than some of the other sequences, demonstrates the limitations of Rossellini's approach here. Without the virtues of the rough, realistic street photography of postwar Italy, all that's left are the tired clichés of the writing and the amateurish performances.

In the fourth sequence, the American nurse Harriet (Harriet White Medin) and the Italian citizen Massimo (Renzo Avanzo) try to find a way into German-occupied Florence, where Italian partisans are heroically fighting against the Germans while British troops sit just outside the city, waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Obviously, the gap between Allied efforts and Italian efforts remains large, but Harriet and Massimo run hand-in-hand through the city, each desperate to get inside for a different reason, her to find an Italian partisan who she loves, him to find his family who he fears may be in danger in the German zones of the city. The episode is basically an extended action sequence, with an emphasis on the spatial geography of the city, as the pair run across rooftops, dodge through hidden tunnels and avoid snipers and German patrols. It's a thrilling, effective sequence that ends with a moving, expressive closeup, one of the film's most glorious shots. Rossellini excels at closeups, at faces, and his final image of Harriet here is a sudden classical composition that emerges with devastating power from the loose, ragged style of the surrounding scenes.

The film's fifth segment concerns a trio of American military chaplains — a Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew — who arrive at an Italian monastery and are welcomed by the monks. The monks, however, are discomfited by the realization that two of their guests are not Catholic, and they become concerned about the two "lost souls" who they fear have made the wrong choice in terms of religion. This story evokes the gentle humor that Rossellini directed at the brave priest in Rome Open City; it's obvious that Rossellini has great respect for religion without being entirely straight-faced about it. The sequence where the monks find out that the American chaplains are not all Catholic is clearly played for humor, as they go running around the monastery in a panic announcing to the others that there's a Jew amongst them. It seems like Rossellini is setting up the story to mock the provincialism and intolerance of the monks, but instead it turns out that the monks are genuinely worried for the men, that they believe so strongly that their Catholicism is the only correct path that they don't wish for any good men to risk their souls with another religion. The segment is tonally unbalanced with the rest of the film and ends with a saccharine speech from one of the American chaplains, driving home the moral of communion between Italians and Americans, praising the Italian monks for their "pure faith."

In the final segment, depicting the battles on the Po River, the boundaries between the Italians and the Allies have been virtually erased. The Italian partisans speak Italian, and the American and British soldiers speak English, but they all seem to understand one another, without the difficulties of language seen in the earlier segments. They are working together towards a common goal, and the segment opens with a taut suspense sequence in which an American soldier and an Italian partisan cooperate from different points along the river in order to fight some German sentries while retrieving the body of a dead soldier. In this episode, the various armies and nationalities intermingle, and in the nighttime scenes it's impossible to see who's who; one can only hear the voices drifting across the dark river speaking English or Italian. Even so, this episode also emphasizes the one crucial distinction between the Italians and the Allies, which is that the Italians are fighting here for their homeland, for their people, while the Allies are on foreign soil. There's a difference, too, in the treatment of the prisoners who are captured by the Germans, and the film ends with a moving and horrifying tribute to the sacrifices of the Italian partisans who fought and died in the battles to push the Germans out of Italy.

On the whole, Paisan is an interesting if deeply flawed movie. It is obviously a very emotional look at the postwar period and the events that affected the Italian people in the final stretch of the war. If the film's writing is occasionally sentimental and generic, Rossellini pours real feeling into his images and into his portrait of the rubble-strewn streets of his home country.

Gion bayashi

At the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi's Gion bayashi is the effect of changing sexual politics coming into contact with the traditional role of the geisha in Japanese culture. The film represents a dialectic between the traditional understanding of a woman's place as submissive and obedient and more modern attitudes regarding the ability of women to define their own desires and their own lives. Mizoguchi's film suggests that the reality of the world lags well behind these changing attitudes, as many expect the old ways to continue unchanged. This is a film, above all, about sexual exploitation, and it candidly examines the many ways in which women are exploited by the male-dominated society in which they must live. Eiko (Ayako Wakao) decides to become a geisha as a last resort: her mother was a geisha, and when she dies, Eiko is left with no one but an uncle who takes her in only on the condition that Eiko should sleep with him. Fleeing her uncle's sexual advances — forced upon her from a position of power and control — Eiko goes to the geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) and begs to become a geisha. Miyoharu agrees to train the young girl, even though it would be at her own expense, because she sees that Eiko has nowhere else to go. The two women soon become embroiled in a complex set of pressures constricting them and limiting their choices, as they become pawns in the business plans of Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba).

The film's plot is relentless in documenting the pressures weighing down on Miyoharu and Eiko, as women whose sole role is to be desirable and solicitous, to tend to the needs of men as objects of beauty. Kusuda is a powerful older businessman who loves to be surrounded with young girls. He plays games with a harem of geisha like a little boy, running around and pantomiming baseball gestures, but he takes an especial liking to Eiko as soon as he meets her. Kusuda is also using Miyoharu as a tool in his attempts to get a lucrative contract, since the mid-level minister Kanzaki — who has the ability to make a decision on a business deal affecting Kusuda — falls in love with Miyoharu. Both women thus becomes objects in this business deal, ornaments to the negotiations between Kusuda and Kanzaki. The film carefully establishes the stakes, as Miyoharu and Eiko are manipulated into place by the powerful Madame Okimi (Chieko Naniwa), whose favor is necessary to find work as a geisha.

Miyoharu and Eiko are the only decent people in the film; everyone amassed around them is out to use them or exploit them in some way, especially but not only the cartoonishly lecherous Kusuda and Kanzaki. Eiko's father (Eitaro Shindo), an ailing and struggling storeowner, refuses to support his daughter, washing his hands of her and leaving her to either live with her sexually predatory uncle or to struggle wherever else she can. Later, however, when Eiko becomes a successful geisha renowned for her beauty, her father comes crawling around, begging Miyoharu for money, pathetically telling her that if she doesn't lend him some money he'll have no choice but to kill himself to escape his debt and his failing business. He tells her that he feels entitled to a share of his daughter's earnings — this despite his refusal to support her during the girl's training period to become a geisha, when Miyoharu was forced to borrow a great deal of money to establish Eiko as a geisha. Okimi, as well, is exploitative and predatory, with an old-school understanding of a geisha as basically a prostitute. Eiko resists the idea that she has to take on a "patron," and so does Miyoharu; the two women have more modern ideas, primarily the idea that they don't have to sleep with a man they don't like. This is anathema to Okimi, who tries to maneuver the two women into keeping Kusuda and Kanzaki happy.

The film's story is thus naturally melodramatic, with the character types deliberately exaggerated to maximize the horrors these women are subjected to. Mizoguchi's style, however, is low-key and unobtrusive, and the contrast between the direct, observational realism of his style — which captures in its delicate way the simple day-to-day lives of these people — and the passionate melodrama of the narrative creates a pleasing tension in the film's aesthetic. Mizoguchi's style doesn't call attention to itself, but in subtle ways he's constantly accentuating the film's themes, crafting striking compositions that guide the eye to the power relations that are at the heart of the film. One of the most suggestive images comes when Miyoharu, realizing that she has no choice if she wants to support herself and Eiko while keeping the younger girl pure, finally gives in and agrees to spend the night with Kanzaki. When she goes to see him, he's lounging on his belly on the floor, reading, and Mizoguchi shoots him from above, with Miyoharu towering above him as she walks in. The composition superficially suggests that the power relations are in favor of the woman, but the man's languorous pose and the gaze of entitlement he gives her as he says he's been expecting her work against the composition to suggest that in fact it's the man, languidly doing nothing and waiting for the woman to come serve him, who's in control here. The next shot, in which Miyoharu silently goes off into the corner to undo her complicated geisha robes and sashes, reinforces this impression. The geisha is a servant for the rich, and this scene subtly parallels Miyoharu's obsequious behavior with the many scenes of servants catering to the women throughout the rest of the film. If elsewhere the geisha is respected and served, treated with dignity, in the privacy of the bedroom she's expected to be a servant.

Mizoguchi's style is similarly effective in the scene where Eiko first hears that Miyoharu has spent the night with a man. Mizoguchi stages the scene in a single shot, from just outside the door of Eiko and Miyoharu's home. After Eiko hears the news, the door is closed, inserting a wooden grate over her, obscuring her reaction to the realization of what has been necessary to provide for her. The static shot, and the grating layered over it, simultaneously distance the viewer from Eiko's reaction and call attention to it. Mizoguchi's formalism is more restrained, more subtle than that of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, but there's still a clear sense of a constructed world in this film, not only in the artificial contrivances of the script but in the gentle aesthetic sensibility guiding the material. Ozu is an inevitable comparison here, since the theme Mizoguchi is addressing — the conflict between tradition and modernity in a changing postwar Japan — was Ozu's essential theme throughout his postwar work. In comparison, though Ozu is the bolder stylist, Mizoguchi is more overt and melodramatic than his peer, approaching this story as a big theme to be worked out, a message to be communicated, which is very unlike Ozu's method of allowing his themes to gradually emerge from the texture of ordinary lives. If in Ozu's films tradition and modernity are simply part of the fabric of everyday life, in Gion bayashi the script establishes these conflicts in broad strokes and constructs scenes and dialogues obviously intended to bring out one point or another.

This message-oriented perspective is sometimes grating and overbearing, but more often the delicacy of Mizoguchi's aesthetic and the warm, natural performances of his leads prevent the film from becoming too didactic. There's a tenderness and warmth between Miyoharu and Eiko that becomes more and more powerful the more the women suffer together, culminating in the late scene where Miyoharu tells the younger girl how much she loves and cares for her. Mizoguchi deliberately leaves the nature of this love ambiguous — Miyoharu doesn't say she loves the other girl like a daughter — because it's a multilayered bond that encompasses mother/daughter loyalty, frienship, and even a hint of attraction in the way he frames the two women so close together, their heads bowed toward one another in their shared grief. The film ends with them walking down the street together, side by side; in a world amassed against them on all sides, conspiring to sabotage the independent lives they desire, they can ultimately only count on one another.