2012 (so far)

Since ECSTATIC only began in August of last year, I wasn't able to post an entry of recommendations from the first half of 2011, though it would have most likely included some of the films that ended up on my "2011 - Best Films" list, most notably: Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Zach Snyder's Sucker Punch, and possibly a few others that ended up in the "Honorable Mentions" category, as with Duncan Jones' Source Code (which I just recently watched again and liked even more than when I saw it last summer in San Francisco).  I can't say that the first half of 2012 has even yielded as many raves as that 2011 short list, but there have been a few standouts worth recommending in more detail:

1.  We Need To Talk About Kevin dir. Lynne Ramsay

It only seems fitting to start with an Oscilloscope release in the year that we lost this great distribution company's founder and Beastie Boy, Adam Yauch.  Hopefully Oscilloscope can continue the string of quality releases I reported on here, which includes the exceptional new release from Lynne Ramsay, We Need To Talk About Kevin. If you haven't seen the Scotish directors two previous features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar, they are definitely worth the time, particularly Ratcatcher which garnered a lot of attention for Ramsay upon its release, winning her the Silver Hugo at that years Chicago International Film Festival.  I regret having passed up a chance to see We Need To Talk About Kevin at that same festival last year (you can check out my 13-Day 2011 CIFF Diary, beginning here), and even more so since I caught up with it on DVD and realized what a rich directorial achievement it is.  This may have been set off by the fact that I screened it back-to-back with the Duplass Borther's Jeff, Who Lives At Home, which is similar in its attempt to move into new storytelling territory in the context of that directing duo, but with much less affecting results.  In Jeff that move seems to be away from being, as one of my students once put it, "one of those movie where nothing happens" to a movie that has an actual, physical dramatic climax.  Jeff does retain some of the great aspects of character-based storytelling that made the previous Duplass films successful (all of them more so, in my opinion), but in contrast to We Need To Talk About Kevin, their new film is lacking in both visual style and emotional resonance.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
We Need To Talk About Kevin
In Kevin, Ramsay creates a fascinating dynamic and a great deal of empathy around the central character, travel writer Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), while progressively showing us the ways in which she has been ostracized by everyone around her.  The reason for Eva being exiled within her own community is the hidden component of the film, and Ramsay weaves the story of Eva, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their son Kevin (brilliantly played and cast in three stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller) in non-linear fashion, eventually spiraling in on the films tragic center.  In some ways, Ramsay is using the tropes of the Greek tragedy, especially in the tension she creates by keeping the tragic action at bay.  Also at play are the tropes of the Horror film, ala The Bad Seed, or even The Omen.  But, what feels so fresh about Kevin lies in the reality of what it acknowledges about motherhood, parenting, and the nature of children, which is ultimately amplified by the fact that the film is decidedly not a horror film.  In fact, We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of the great films by and about women this year, revealing a truth that is certainly difficult to face, but which films about women and motherhood romanticize all too often.  Ramsay's direction is gorgeous, and Tilda Swinton gives one of her best performances in an already astonishing career.

2.  Keyhole  dir. Guy Maddin

If you've never seen a film by Canadian director Guy Maddin, don't start with Keyhole.  A better point of entry might be 1991's Archangel, or (to this day his most commercial success) 2003's The Saddest Music in the World.  Maddin's style is distinctive, to say the least, drawing from the influences of silent cinema to create studio productions not unlike the most artifice-bound films of Germany's UFA studios...except in modern day Winnepeg.  Among Maddin's best work are his distinctly Canadian and somewhat autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), and My Winnepeg (2007), the latter featuring the great B-actress Ann Savage as Maddin's mother.  Maddins films are the work of a cinephile, for sure, and far removed from the trends of modern indy cinema, which makes a new Maddin all the more welcome.  Not only is Maddin working on his own aesthetic planet, but he is also a champion of the collective cinema experience in an age when great images are being compromised by the mass proliferation of smaller screens.  For Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin even did multiple art cinema presentations with live orchestras, foley artists, and revolving narrators, including Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini, and the director himself.

A Live Presentation of Brand Upon the Brain!
With Keyhole, Maddin is truly reveling in his creative impulses, crafting a cinematic space that is only loosely bound by narrative, but entirely haunted by the ghosts of Carl Jung, Sergei Eisenstein, Homer...and, this time around, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.  The whole affair reminded me of the scene in Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the lead character journeys through his own subconscious...but mixed with a healthy dose of 30's Hollywood gangster pics, and all set in a haunted house--somewhere amid the confluence of all that you'll find Keyhole.  Maddin seems to be stepping up the madness a bit with Keyhole, to the delight of his fans, though it is ultimately one of his more trying pictures, purely relying on the experiential, dream-like quality of the narrative, and stretching his tendency toward frustrating the relationship between the horrific and the comedic to an unprecedented extent (as in a curious and deranged sequence involving "Kid in the Hall" Kevin MacDonald's character raping a maid).  The lead of the film is an utterly dedicated Jason Patric as Ulysses, searching for his wife Hyacinth, played by a Maddin favorite, Isabella Rossellini.  The script by Maddin and his frequent co-writer Greg Toles is as cryptic a psychological puzzle as they've created, as the mythic lead gangster journeys through his "dream house" in a circular, fragmented manner in search of his wife, uncovering family secrets with each labyrinthian pass.  There's a home made electric chair, a machine that operates a system of message-delivering tubes connected to various rooms throughout the house, a naked old man chained to a bed, and Udo Keir.  If all this doesn't immediately appeal to you, then maybe Maddin isn't for you.  If you're like me, you will be wide-eyed for every second, including the remarkable companion short included on the DVD, Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair, which also features Rosselini.  The score by Jason Staczek is remarkable, eerie and perfect--worth seeking out on its own.

3.  Cane Toads:  The Conquest 3D  dir. Mark Lewis

I once read an article where Werner Herzog was asked to recommend a few films...maybe documentaries specifically...and although I had seen some of the others he mentioned I remember an odd title standing out among them:  Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.  This little Australian film from 1988 is still worth seeking out if you haven't seen it, but definitely leaves you with the sense that the problem--some would say epidemic--of the Cane Toad can hardly be contained in a documentary that clocks in at under an hour.  Enter Cane Toads: The Conquest, in 3D no less, perhaps director Mark Lewis's nod to the Herzog bump, and something of a counterpart to Herzog's 3D cave exploring.  The Conquest comes on with an even greater sense of humor than its predecessor, displaying an adeptness at both telling the story of the Cane Toad visually, and allowing the real subjects of the film--those living with and against them--to tell their stories, which in some cases veer into the tragic.  For example, one of the lessons that The Conquest has to offer is that if you're out in front of the trailer on a warm night enjoying a few cocktails, watch where you strike with your frog spear--you may just hit a power line.

Ultimately, Cane Toads: The Conquest does feel a bit uneven as it favors the human stories of Cane Toad encounters over the visual exploration of more scientific aspects hinted at in some of the opening sequences.  But, The Conquest does deliver the alarming story of the Cane Toad migration and subsequent...well, conquest...with one of the most thoughtful and stunning uses of 3D cinematography yet, which is saying something for a movie about toads.  And, it leaves the audience with some true and pertinent questions about our relationship to nature, without mandating the bullshit Disney worldview found in this years Chimpanzee (which might make Herzog's skin crawl even more than March of the Penguins).  Though playing for laughs from time to time, The Conquest is a serious piece of nature cinema that considers through a variety of perspectives the very real problem of dealing with a toad that lays 30 to 40,000 eggs at a time.  No joke, indeed.   

Panos Casmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow
I was fortunate enough to see Cane Toads: The Conquest in 3D thanks to a festival that premiered this year, the Cinetopia International Film Festival in Ann Arbor, MI.  Coming quickly on the heels of the 50th Anniversary of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the festival premiered a number of films I'm anticipating catching up with in the coming months, particularly Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow, Emad Burnat's 5 Broken Cameras, Denis Cote's Bestiare, and Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister


DOUBLE FEATURE: "Renaldo and Clara" dir. Bob Dylan (1978) + "Masked and Anonymous" dir. Larry Charles (2003)

Bob Dylan and the movies have a long and difficult past, and there's no better example of that than one of only two films tagged with Mr. Zimmerman's directorial credit, the concert/documentary/fictional endurance test Renaldo and Clara.  And, yes, for those who have heard tale of this murky, underground-dwelling beast of a film, it does exist.  I am referring to the version that is often tagged as the "4-hour Extended Cut," though truth be told, it clocks in at about 3 hours and 46 minutes. Dylan also created a cut of his 1966 European tour with the Band called Eat the Document, which remains the only other attempt by Dylan to "direct" a film, though it never stood up to the iconic D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back (1967), the most prominent standing record of Dylan in the mid-60's.  Now 73 years old, Dylan has been through numerous transformations as a musician, having finally succumb to recording a Christmas album in 2009, Christmas in the Heart.  Though he has occasionally veered into the world of film--as a director, performer, and (most successfully) a seemingly bottomless subject of inquiry--it was always clear that the real performance, the real life, was onstage.  For those who have seen Bob Dylan's attempts at acting, it's hard not to hear the title of Todd Haynes' experimental, splintered bio-pic from 2007 ringing in your ears:  I'm Not There.     

Renaldo and Clara
I'm Not There
The Dylan mystique seems to have become an increasingly complex puzzle for filmmakers, rock critics, and fans since his rise to fame as an almost immediately reluctant "voice" of a generation.  But, considering the extent to which he has been poked an prodded by both himself (as in his 2005 memoir Chronichles: Volume One) and others (see the lengthy Scorsese documentary No Direction Home) since that time, it's difficult to say whether there is anything like mystique left at all.  If Don't Look Back was the petulant youth of a folk superstar, and Masked and Anonymous is the death of an increasingly absurd quest for nostalgia in the face of a bleak present, then Renaldo and Clara is a lost place somewhere between those two extremes.  The film begins with the strains of a tune that sounds a bit sorrowful given the career path of Dylan through the following couple of decades, the lyrics a bit muted by an eerie, clear plastic mask:  "Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rent...when I paaaaiiint my masterpiece."  Like most of the concert footage in Renaldo and Clara it's a fantastic performance, exhibiting a symbiosis of musicianship that explains why many fans consider the "Rolling Thunder Revue" tour that the film partly documents to be some of the most coveted of Dylan's live output.

The Rolling Thunder Revue
But, before I begin to sound like too much of a Dylan fanatic, I should say that my impulse to seek out the monstrous cut of Renaldo and Clara had more to do with the legend of the film itself than anything resembling Dylan-mania.  Dylan has passed in and out of my life as a curiosity, but I just never took that ultimate plunge of obsession that he seems to inspire.  I listened to the Greatest Hits cassette excessively around my junior year of high school, and eventually saw him play live twice (once on Halloween in 1990, of my own choice, and a second time, by circumstance, ten years later; in '90 he barely moved or acknowledged the presence of the audience, and in 2000 he shook his hips like Elvis).  In other words, I've always liked Blood on the Tracks a lot, but I never poured over lyrics or coveted box sets, and I won't be sitting down anytime soon to listen to the entirety of Self Portrait or Empire Burlesque just to call myself a Dylan "completist."  In fact, the odds of that happening are now even slighter having endured the full cut of Renaldo and Clara, which is perhaps the definition of a "for completists only" artifact, whether musical or cinematic.  The film was originally screened theatrically, but was such a failure that it was ultimately cut down to a more concise concert film.  Having taken the time to dig up this strangely titled mystery with hopes that it might be some kind of tragically misunderstood, meandering experimental masterpiece, its hard to admit that it is, in fact, just in need of being edited down into a more concise concert film.  "Masterpiece" is a strong start...David Blue telling stories about meeting Bob while playing pinball, ok....Bob attacking "Hard Rain" like he's angry that anyone ever liked it in the first place while Sam Shepard looks on from the wings, awesome...Alan Ginsberg being brought on to "Everything's Coming Up Roses" after a lounge act version of "Cabaret," delightfully weird...  But, at around the hour-and-a-half mark, the reality of Renaldo and Clara really begins to settle in: it's painfully dull.  I can understand giving the crew some screen time in a concert film, as well as attempting some hotel room improv along the way.  I can even see dressing up Joan Baez for some faux-brothel scenes with a violin-playing boy clad in only underwear and angel wings.  But, the problem with Renaldo and Clara is that all of that (and more) are shot and lit with such amateurish skill, and then seemingly thrown at an editing machine in hopes that it all somehow gels.  By the time Dylan attempts to shoehorn in a mini-documentary about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, annoyingly fading up and down the audio of his epic song about Carter around some hopeless "person on the street" interview footage, the promise of Renaldo and Clara achieving anything close to the flow of a great, rambling Dylan ballad is lost.

Renaldo and Clara
My attention set adrift somewhere in the soupy middle of the film, I couldn't help but think about the Kuleshov workshops of the teens and 20's, and the stories of early Russian filmmakers working with prints of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation as a way to practice editing techniques.  Not only is Renaldo and Clara not that lost, mysterious, rambling, avant-garde behemoth that I had hoped for, it would in fact be the perfect film to use for training film editors, similar to the way the Kuleshov workshop used Griffith.  Of course, this is only true because there is a pretty great concert film embedded in the nearly un-watchable Dylan cut, and certain other snippets that would play pretty well as interstitial compliments to some of that performance footage.  One of the first few numbers in the film is a devastating version of "Isis" that really shows the power of the live band, later complimented by Dylan solo, in white-face and framed in an unforgettably relentless close-up performing "Tangled Up in Blue," which is probably one of the most oft excerpted clips from the film (I still have VHS of it somewhere, dubbed from a Night Flight episode...Nigh Flight, anyone?).  It's these musical moments that still make Renaldo and Clara worth mentioning at all, but taken in its complete form as a directorial work, it's an utter mess.

"Tangled Up in Blue"
Larry Charles has described his collaboration with Dylan, 2003's Masked and Anonymous, as extremely process-oriented, to the extent of almost utter disregard for the quality of the product. This same sentiment was most definitely applied by Dylan to Renaldo and Clara, though the product suffers to a much greater extent than with Masked.  In fact, it's stunning how consistently the attempts at creating any original segments of drama or character fail in Renaldo and Clara, especially considering that Sam Shepard was contributing dialogue, and the occasional seasoned actor even shows up, as with Harry Dean Stanton.  But, the "scenes" are clearly improvised to an excruciating extent, mostly performed by Bob (Renaldo) and Sara Dylan (Clara), Joan Baez (The Woman in White), and a slew of others along for the Rolling Thunder ride. Though Bob himself ranks as one of the least engaging actors in the history of celluloid, notably rotten performances abound, as with Bob's wife Sara, Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins (who ultimately gets billing as "Bob Dylan" in Renaldo and Clara for a scene where he is mistaken by a reporter for Bob), and quite a few others. These scenes are truly what make Renaldo and Clara such a drag, in the final analysis, though the overall trip is not without the occasional sparkle of hope.  For every moment that sparks curiosity, or even the desire to read a bit deeper--Dylan shaking hands with the Rolling Thunder tribe while "People Get Ready" plays on the soundtrack, or Dylan and Ginsberg visiting the grave of Kerouac (one of those moments to keep in, editor-in-training)--there is the inclusion of two or three segments crying out for the editing room floor...like Roger McGuinn doing that goddamn song about the horse.

Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsberg in Renaldo and Clara
Although Dylan had played a supporting part (appropriately dubbed "Alias") a few years earlier in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and would go on to perform in the Joe Esterhauz-penned Hearts of Fire (1987), his most ambitious role would come much later in the somewhat overlooked gem, Masked and Anonymous.

Though "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" scribe Larry Charles is now most commonly cited as the directorial collaborator on the Sasha Baron Cohen films (Borat, 2006; Bruno, 2009; The Dictator, 2012), as well as Bill Maher's 2008 doc Religulous, his first credit as director is attached to what might be considered a somewhat riskier project, given Dylan's track record in the world of movies up to that point.  Most of the conversation around Masked and Anonymous at the time of its release dismissed the experiment as an utter mess; an easy position to take, considering the film was shot in less than 30 days, and contains enough stars to automatically classify it as a disaster movie.  
Jeff Bridges as Tom Friend
Ed Harris as Oscar Vogel
Val Kilmer as The Animal Wrangler
Masked and Anonymous opens with images of violent revolt; we catch a glimpse of what looks like the streets of Beijing, juxtaposed in quick-cut fashion to what might be the WTO protests, while simultaneously we strain to uncover what Dylan song we’re hearing intoned in Japanese (“My Back Pages” by the Makagoro Brothers). This initial montage does a wonderful job of (dis)orienting us to the “in-between” world of Masked and Anonymous, as we are never quite sure what geographical or psychological borders we are straddling throughout this ode to the aging folk-rocker.  Dylan “plays” Jack Fate, imprisoned in a war torn third-world nation that just may be the United States in the mind of Dylan’s screenwriting persona Sergei Petrov, yet another alias to add to Dylan’s multi-layered network of disguises.  In fact, most of the characters in Masked seem to be operating under an alias, sporting names like Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges), Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), and Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz).  But, as the world of the film coalesces, it becomes clear that the characters in Masked are not really movie characters at all, but song characters.  In fact, the film sits a little easier read as a feature-length Dylan concept album, the "cuts" represented by thoughtfully interspersed scenes of Dylan and his band jamming (Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, Guitar; Tony Garnier, Bass; George Receli, Drums), all cleverly framed by Charles and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (who went on to shoot for Richard Linklater on School of Rock and Bad News Bears).

Because of the freewheeling process Charles and Dylan embraced in Masked and Anonymous there are a few moments that will no doubt leave audiences puzzled, as when Dylan goes off on what could be considered a monologue for the character of Jack Fate, expounding on the function of cellulose and how it's digestible by cows, but not by him or any other human...or something (I recall seeing the film during its theatrical run at the Music Box in Chicago, and audience members audibly calling out in the theater: “What?!" "What is Bob talking about?”). Added to that, the denoument of Masked, which concerns the attempted rape of Pagan Lace by Uncle Sweetheart, and a subsequent brawl involving Sweetheart, Fate, Friend, and Cupid is so unaffecting that it’s hard to leave this picture not wanting something more.  The multitude of cameos (including Bruce Dern, Fred Ward, Angela Bassett, Giovanni Rabisi, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, and Christian Slater, to name but a few), although occasionally engaging, certainly don’t fill that void.

Giovanni Ribisi (The Soldier) and Dylan
Mickey Rourke (Edmund) and Dylan
To be fair, that “something more” is inched toward by the simultaneous action of newly empowered dictator and Fate's brother, Edmund, played by Mickey Rourke (in maybe one of his best dressed roles ever) taking militant action upon the masses immediately upon the death of the former President and patriarchal figure in the film.  Rourke thrives in this otherwise shabbily designed portion of the film, thrusting aside his mock Presidential podium while declaring, “There will be no more stupidity.  There will be no more mistakes.  It’s a new day.  God help you all.”  Dylan and Charles are not just filling half-baked characters mouths with discarded song lyrics in these moments, but striving for the bigger picture of celebrity politics, and the roots of corruption that have connected the US and Mexico for decades. The way the film allows the borders of North and South America to bleed across one another is itself a commentary on that history of corruption and influence, and the film ultimately emerges as a fairly effective, albeit broad, satire.

Another potent aspect of the film is personified in the journalist character Tom Friend, continually badgering Fate with questions rooted in an aching nostalgia, to which Fate is almost entirely unresponsive.  In these moments, there is clearly no line distinguishing Fate and Dylan, and, amazingly, something readable registers on Dylan’s drawn mug; not ego, but exasperation.  These particularly well-crafted scenes read as a message to all of the aging hippies like Friend, looking for those answers in their fallen heroes and lamenting a world they maybe refused to grow into.  It's that issue of growth that Dylan has been dealing with all along, continuing to trudge ahead through decades that seemed to value his musical endeavors less and less, and understandably not being able to create genius work that speaks specifically to that moment in history with each new album, all the while playing for audiences that were just shouting for yet another incarnation of “Blowing in the Wind.”  In one perfect moment of Masked and Anonymous, a mother asks Dylan/Fate to listen to her daughter sing the iconic folk song.  The young girl has committed his songs to memory, and her rendition produces on Dylan's face what has to be one of the most genuine reactions of his entire film career, as it seems our restless hero has found a fleeting moment of satisfaction amid the unrelenting nostalgia.

Dylan was never meant to be an actor, which is certainly no crime, especially in a time when some of the most over-used, lucrative actors are some of the least interesting people to watch.  And, though not a great actor, he is interesting to watch.  It may be that a lifetime of everyone looking at him is what kept him from having any kind of character as an actor at all.  And, ultimately, Masked and Anonymous is better for having him at the center, and not some Dylan stand-in (maybe they could have gathered up Harry Dean again? Or, Nick Cage?).  In the end, as Fate is driven away, we hear Dylan speak what is perhaps the most relevant bit of commentary on his forays into film.  His face clasped tight in defiance of any final, telling moment of expression, the camera follows him as he takes a ride in the back of a police van (maybe not unlike the mythic "squad car of Fate" from the end of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour?), and in voice over we here him say in a weathered tone:  "I was always a singer, and maybe no more than that."