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June 30, 2009

Beau Travail (1999)


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For your listening pleasure: two selections from Benjmin Britten's opera of Billy Budd, which Denis uses to score her film:

Billy Budd - Scene 1: Pull, By Bantams

Billy Budd - Interlude & Scene 2: Blow Her Away...

And, too, though I'd recommend picking it up in print, the entire text of Melville's short novel. It's not essential reading in order to enjoy Beau Travail, but it certainly enriches it.

Posted by David Lowery at 5:47 AM

Nenette et Boni (1996)


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Nenette et Boni marks Denis' first use of a score by the pop group Tindersticks, whose lush, tremulous music (much of it drawn from their second self-titled album) henceforth becomes a trademark of her work, and which here ebbs in and out of a narrative that, like the prismatic imagery that accompanies its hero's initial masturbatory reveries, reflects back and forth itself with endless symmetrical variations, all of which are incessantly, unerringly sensual. In fact, the first thing that struck me about the film was how gorgeously Denis captures Boni's frequent bouts of self pleasure. Masturbation is usually portrayed as solipsistic at best and violently nihilistic at worst, with the prevailing common ground finding it a practical punchline to a fairly common joke. Here, though, in spite of the rather misogynistic nature of Boni's fantasies, Denis regards these private moments from a sweet, tender, almost romantic perspective. She traces her way up and down his body, luxuriating with him as he exalts himself, traipsing now and then right into those fantasies themselves, and then back out again into the working class neighborhood sof Marseilles.

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It's from this same perspective that she first views the object of Boni's desire - the beautiful, curvaceous baker's wife. And her wares as well, which are too lovingly photographed to simply be double entendres but which are certainly sexualized to maximum effect. Long shots of bread, pastries with glistening, suggestive clefts, row after row of cream-topped cakes, into which a finger gently pushes. It's dazzling, decadent, gloriously perverse, and it is here - with this eroticization of work, of a trade - that the crux of the film is first hinted at.

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Essentially, the film traces the dynamic between those most pendulous of masculine concerns: the shift from exuberant, youthful lust to adult responsibility, a journey which can be mapped by the seed expended in pursuit of both ends. Boni objectifies the baker's wife (in spite of her clearly happy marriage) until his teenage sister Nenette shows up in his bed, seven months pregnant, and frustrates his carefree ways. Why is his bed the place she appears - indeed, right as he's bringing himself to another climax? Rest assured, Denis isn't dipping her feet into incestuous subject matter; she's simply letting the sexuality by which the first quarter of the film was defined progress naturally; this sibling relationship can't help but be compounded by it. That said, the film doesn't stop being sensual once the sexuality ceases to be free of consequence. Consider these two images, which are presented about ten minutes apart in the film but are clearly reflective of one another:

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The latter frame, it turns out, is from yet another masturbation scene, one representative of the thematic lines that have begun to run together; Boni kisses the mound of dough with paternal tenderness (reflecting a preceding scene between the baker, his wife and their baby, and prefiguring the final moment with Nenette's newborn) before letting loose on it with desperate, orgiastic fervor.

And the way those lines continue to blur - I don't know what adjectives to use other than marvelous, joyful, ecstatic, in describing just what it's like to watch Denis turn our expectations on their head. She delves deep into Freudian territory while openly engaging, confronting and confounding the typical Madonna-Whore complex a lesser filmmaker would have been content to merely exploit. This is the classic story of a boy becoming a man, but you scarcely know it until the final scene, which find Boni bursting into a hospital, armed with a BB gun, his heart set on growing up come hell or high water.

* * *

And there, in the middle of it all - Vincent Gallo's baby blues.

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Posted by David Lowery at 3:48 AM

June 24, 2009

35 Rhums (2009)


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Chronology must temporarily fall by the wayside: I made it up to Nenette et Boni before yesterday, when 35 Rhums played at LAFF. That morning and afternoon saw a welcome influx of guests and a not-so-welcome overabundance of sunshine, and by the time five o'clock rolled around and it was time to head over to Westwood, I was spent. I stood in line (more sun!) and briefly considered skipping this partiuclar screening and going to the encore on Thursday - but that would involve passing up the Wilco show that we were on the list for, and besides, I'd been waiting to see this movie for too long. I found my seat and the lights went down and it started. And then halfway through it started again, and in between those two beginnings all the worried creases in my mind were ironed out and I was left feeling right as rain.

That second beginning was the centerpiece of the film, the extended scene in the bar in which the four main characters spend a rainy evening, dancing to the jukebox and silently delineating their relationships. It's the scene which everyone talks about, because you can't not talk about it, even though it's also one of those scenes that can be semantically deconstructed or pedantically described but can't be put into words in any truly meaningful way. I can say that it occurs roughly at the midpoint of the film, maybe even a bit later, and is the culmination of everything Denis has developed to that point - but I can't explain why, in my immediate memory, it comes so much earlier. I can describe my memory of the smile I felt spreading across my face, there in the dark, but as to tracing the source of that reaction I can only suggest you see the film yourself.

The other scenes I loved: the one with the poor 17-year old cat, and the one with the old man on the train, and the way these two representations of the same theme dovetailed at just the right point to underscore its director's intent. That the film was inspired by Denis' mother's love for her own father is clear; but out of that emotional content, Denis has crafted an immensely tender instruction manual on how to let things go.

I rode to the theater with Clay, and we made loose plans to meet up afterwards. But when I strolled outside, I decided to just go for a walk instead. I'd recently sent a friend a note about Baudelaire and his definition of le flâneur - "a gentleman stroller of city streets" - and the movement it inspired, and with that in mind I decided to walk all the way home. Seven and a half miles, which with my newly cleared head and a deficit of sunshine felt like half as much. I can't wait to see this movie again.

And it reminded me that I need to buy a new rice cooker.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:21 AM | Comments (1)

June 20, 2009

J'ai Pas Sommeil (1995)


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I haven't seen Claire Denis' second feature, S'en fout la mort (as far as I can tell, it's only available on an out-of-print VHS) and so can't exactly trace her path from the stateliness of Chocolat to the warm messiness of I Can't Sleep, her first collaboration with Agnes Godard as cinematographer. And by messy I mean: the film is loose to the point of sloppiness. The lens often seems incapable of finding focus as the characters drift in and out of its handheld periphery - an imperfection, to be sure, but one begat of the camera's regard, which is considerate in a way that a more mannered approach would not have been.

That consideration is extended to Camille (Richard Courcet), the queer Raskolinkov in what is essentially a true crime story. Camille is based on Thierry Paulin, a drag queen who murdered 18 elderly women in the 80s before being arrested, confessing to his crimes and succumbing to AIDS prior to conviction. This context gives the film it's axis. Camille's intentions are opaque; perhaps he's simply evil (on the film's poster, he's literally portrayed as a devil), but all signs suggest otherwise, and Denis isn't after a theory so simple as that of a wolf in ewe's clothing. Rather, in lieu of direct hypothesis, she employs the contrasts afforded by the interconnected storylines - which all deal in one way or another with issues of personal and, especially, cultural assimilation. It's a theme that she'll return to, but I couldn't help but feel that the promise of this particular film was picked up and brought to greater fruition by Michael Haneke in Code Unknown (and, to a more refined but perhaps lesser extent, Cache). In a way, Camille is too easy a symbol for the disconnection that Denis is probing here. There are other things more haunting, more enigmatic. The look that Beatrice Dalle gives Alex Descas, for example, by way of looking straight into the lens. And the way he returns it later, but not to her.

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A little fracture of the fourth wall. Those are the things that stick.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:52 AM

June 17, 2009

Chocolat (1988)


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I wonder how many people looking forward to getting Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat from Netflix have accidentally received Claire Denis' 1988 debut instead. Of them, I wonder how many actually watched it, and if the same great strengths that so clearly anticipated her advent upon the stage of international cinema might have compelled them to make it past the end credits and see what else she'd made.

Looking at the film in light of her body of work, you watch for these source tags. Certain compositions jump out, certain dialectical cuts that are almost classically familiar. But then there's this sequence, thirty minutes in, in which young France (such an audacious name!) is awakened in the middle of the night by the cackle of hyenas out on the plains of Cameroon, that grabs you and shakes you in an entirely unexpected way. I had to watch it again right away, just to make sure I'd really seen what I thought I'd seen.

It begins with France, peeking around her mother's door. This is followed by a shot of her mother beckoning to her from behind the ghostly mosquito net around her bed - but the cut between the shots comes a few seconds later than we anticipate, so that by the time we see Aimée, the mother, she's already sitting up, in the process of leaning forward. Any potential for comfort or safety on the part of the viewer is immediately thrown of by this edit, which clearly articulates that Aimée has been caught in the act of something. Of course, we know that she hasn't, not literally - but this edit predicates the mode in which Denis stages the rest of the scene.

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Shortly after France has clambered into bed, the hyenas grow louder. Aimée lights a lamp and leaves the room for a moment. When she returns, it's with an egregiously oversized dagger. She enters the room, unsheathing it and raising it to her breast, while narrowing her eyes towards her daughter. Why does she look at her this way? It's an image rife with associations - my mind jumped instantly to Mario Bava - and it was here that I realized with a start that Denis was essentially letting the scene play out under the guise of a horror film!

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It gets even better. Aimée calls for Protée, their houseboy. His appearance is disorienting; she calls out the door for him, but his voice responds from behind her, and she realizes that he's materialized outside the window. Just standing there, impassively, like a ghost, or a revenant (this particular image calls to mind Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With A Zombie, which allows one to entertain the possibility that Pedro Costa might have been influenced by this film when he cast the great Isaach De Bankolé in Casa de Lava, his enigmatic offshoot of Tourneur's classic).

Protée enters with his rifle and looks down at France, who watches him shyly from the bed. But we see his perspective before we see hers, and so we're presented with this seemingly isolated shot of a littler girl glowering up at the camera. As with the opening conjunction of shots, there's nothing literally out of the ordinary here - France is looking up at her friend, afraid to be her normal convivial self in her mother's presence - but the order in which they occur adds to the growing unease of the sequence. Something is awry.

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This is exacerbated with an abrupt cut to Aimée, who glances over her shoulder and sends a terse and anxious look - not towards Protée or France, but to the exchange occurring between them. Again, she appears on edge. She wants to be in control of this situation, but isn't.

The lamps are put out. The night has a different color than it did before - it's cooler now, darker, stranger. Aimée and France return to the bed. After a few moments, France's little head perks up, and she once again regards Protée. Her gaze - the camera's - pushes in on him as he sits in the darkness, weapon in hand. He offers a hint of a smile. We don't see the response. The sequence ends.

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Why did Denis stage the scene this way? Because: Aimée has invited Protée to spend the night in her room. It was the only way to stage it.

* * *

I have to mention the last shot, which I can only respond to as a filmmaker. I don't know if it was scripted, or if the film was conceived to end this way; I have to believe that it was, but regardless, it's one of those shots that, from the very first frame, is entirely conclusive. It carries the weight of the entire film, and effortlessly sends it off. Sometimes when you're shooting, these shots will randomly present themselves to you, and you'll realize that this is how the film will end. Likewise, when you're viewing a film, those shots maintain the same intrinsic significance, and you watch them hoping against hope that the film will indeed go out on this note.

They usually do. Chocolat is, through and through, a wonderful film, but I feel that it is with this shot that Denis truly began the overture that she's still sustaining, 21 years later.

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Next up: J'ai Pas Sommeil .

Posted by David Lowery at 12:53 PM | Comments (2)

June 16, 2009

A Week with Claire Denis

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For a few months two years ago, I kept an account, in a little Moleskine, of every movie I saw. A few lines, a few paragraphs, whatever came to mind; an exercise meant mostly to better affix the film in my memory. It ended when that journal vanished (my habits are sadly rooted in such particulars), but that brief duration it worked. The first film I wrote about in that book was Claire Denis' L'Intrus.

Denis' new film, 35 Rums, is playing at the LA Film Festival in just over a week, and in anticipation I restarted my Netflix account and put every film of hers on my queue (and then realized I could watch Beau Travail instantly and could hardly keep from watching more than the first ten minutes right then and there). I'm going to do my best to watch them all over the next week, and to write about each one here. Just a little bit, I imagine. Freeform, no critical obligations. I just want to run with it, and to make sure I remember them.

Posted by David Lowery at 11:58 AM | Comments (2)

June 14, 2009

Nine AM

I watched St. Nick all the way through yesterday for the first time since the premiere at SXSW. But first, let me say that I haven't been to a festival outside of Sundance that has screenings earlier than 11:30am, and so it was with equal amounts relief and surprise that I saw the line of people waiting to get into the nine o'clock showing of St. Nick yesterday morning. It was gray and cold and cloudy. There were about fifty people there, and as the lights dimmed, I decided on a whim to stay with them and take the movie in.

There were things I found frustrating. Parts of the sound mix that I wish we'd finessed more, and that I can still fix. There were sequences that I thought were unnecessarily long, and yet I couldn't think of a reason for them not to be there. There's a lugubriousness to the pace that, I now recall, I intentionally maintained throughout the edit. Leaving the wrong moments in. Rough edges felt like the right choice for this movie, but I'd forgotten about them, and they jarred me in exactly the way I must have intended them to. And then there were the scenes that surprised me and delighted me, where I felt I really achieved something, and I found myself wishing that regular old wish that I could see the movie blindly, like everyone else in the audience, and see what it's really like to feel those moments for the first time.

An elderly gentleman stopped me on the way out and told me that he felt what I wanted him to feel from the very first shot. Afterwards I walked through the beautiful gloom and couldn't resist having a cup of coffee for the first time in two weeks (at a cafe that roasts their own beans behind a glass partition). Then I went back to the hotel and listened to my favorite Joanna Newsom record, and took a short nap and dreamed that I awoke to a snowstorm.

Today it's bright and sunny. I've got two hours before the next screening, and I've been drinking mojitos since eleven, so I should ace the Q&A. Meanwhile: I've been receiving intermittent reports from CineVegas, where Adam was apparently sighted making out with Clay's mom, the titular namesake of his hit short film. It's a testament to Waterfront that I don't feel like I'm missing out...

Posted by David Lowery at 1:20 PM

June 12, 2009

I'm Boy Crazy?

I just made this spot for my friend Alexi's blog:

In other news, I just arrived at my lakefront hotel in Michigan and discovered that the main venue for the Waterfront Film Festival is in a converted pie factory! Something about that just makes me happy. Also, I'm getting the impression that the alcohol flows more freely here than any film festival this side of CineVegas (where Adam Donaghey has apparently been making friends with Jack Nicholson - an appropriate pairing, if ever there was one). I haven't been drinking lately, and have been eating mostly a raw foods diet, so my body is going to be particularly prone to inebriation. Should I go for it anyway? Will I make it to my 9 AM screening tomorrow? Stay tuned...

Posted by David Lowery at 7:41 PM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2009

Scott On Mark: After Last Season director interview

Scott Maccaulay scored a major coup at the Filmmaker Blog - an extensive interview with After Last Season helmer Mark Region. In spite of of my own publicly stated disbelief, I'm finding the dawning evidence that this is, in fact, as real as it seems to be to be strangely comforting...

Posted by David Lowery at 7:56 PM | Comments (3)

June 9, 2009

Adult Content Warning! St. Nick at the Waterfront Film Festival

The Waterfront Film Festival's program notes include a viewer advisory note, alerting audience members that St. Nick contains nudity and language. Which is true! But it seems strange and funny to put such literal terms on the film, because I've never really thought that anyone might find it inappropriate. The film isn't family entertainment, but at the same time I don't think it's inappropriate for kids - they'll either be bored by it or get into it on a very direct level.

Anyway. The film plays at the very kid-friendly hour of nine in the morning this coming Saturday, and then again on Sunday at 4:30pm. In between, on Saturday, I'll be on a panel entitled The Life Of A Filmmaker. I'm getting a little better at this whole public speaking thing - but just a little, so if you happen to be in Michigan this weekend, don't miss your chance to hear me send my train of thought careening off the tracks en route to being vocalized.

Meanwhile, other St. Nick crew-members will be heading to CineVegas this weekend, where Clay Liford's beloved short film My Mom Smokes Weed will be unspooling. I can't wait to hear the stories from the inevitable bacchanal that will transpire. In the meantime, you can see a clip from the film on the CineVegas site.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:25 AM

June 8, 2009

After Last Season

So the trip Ti and Adam and I took on Friday was to Lancaster, California, which is apparently the crystal-meth capital of Southern California. While driving down its sunny avenues, we espied a man in a motorized wheelchair going through a fast food drive-through.

This is what we were en route to:

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I spent the evening following our return staring at my computer, trying to wrap my brain around the review I'd promised to write. One very busy weekend later, I finally managed to eke out just over 1000 words on this cause celebre. An excerpt:

...Which is to say that, having driven 90 minutes to see Mark Region’s After Last Season at a Cinemark megaplex in the middle of the desert, having uttered the title at the box office with the same nervousness by which young men of old might have purchased a ticket to their first adult film, having sat down in the theater, having watched all 93 minutes of the film itself projected on 35mm and then driving 90 miles back home afterward, I feel no more convinced that it’s real than I did when I first watched (and watched and watched) the trailer after it surfaced online three months ago. The cards just don’t line up.

You can read the rest at Hammer To Nail.

Posted by David Lowery at 3:00 PM | Comments (1)

June 5, 2009

FA at Largo

I wish every show I saw was at Largo. It has the best accoustics, and you have to sit down, which is generally my live music position of choice. Last night I paid a visit to see the Watkins Family Variety Show. Special guests included John Paul Jones on mandolin, John C. Reilly on guitar and vocals and - my true reason for attending - Fiona Apple, being Fiona Apple. Ever since she canceled her tour in the spring of 2000 on the very day I was standing in line to buy tickets, I've been fated to miss her shows - so there was some discombobulation in store when she slipped out on stage, just a few feet from the front row where I was sitting. I can't quite describe it.

* * *

Tomorrow, I'm going back to Largo to see Jon Brion again. But before that - Ti West and I will be embarking on a top secret mission into the Northern desert. We don't know quite what awaits us there, but we're fully prepared to come emerge from this journey enlightened, or lobotomized, or perhaps even to find that all of Southern California has finally shaken itself free of the minland and is drifting off into the Pacific. Something like that.

Posted by David Lowery at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

June 3, 2009

Fame

There are a few people whose writing and speech patterns are entirely inseparable, and fewer still whose identities are telegraphed as instantly by the former as by the latter. So then, to note the byline of this op-ed piece in the Times borders on redundancy - but basically, it's by Ricky Jay, and the route he takes to the conclusion he makes handily took the place of the morning coffee I've temporarily given up once again. It's been five days now, and that filamental amoeba that's been violently spasming within the folds of my gray matter, I think, nearly dead (at least until its inevitable resuscitation and resubstantiation a few weeks from now).

Posted by David Lowery at 6:40 PM

Commentary: James Gray


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I finally caught up with James Gray's The Yards and We Own The Night, after being so enchanted by Two Lovers a few months ago. Perhaps I came at them predisposed, but I loved these movies. Particularly The Yards. Listening to the director's commentary track on that one, I found that Gray quite capably explains exactly what it is that makes his films so good, which when played against the film creates an almost comforting redundancy: he's telling us exactly what he's doing, which reinforces the thrill of knowing that someone is, in fact, doing it, and that it's not some happy accident.

Here's a chunk I found particularly appealing, given my own deference to archetype:

You are always in a struggle to avoid cliche; however, it's very relevant to embrace archetype. Some people go to movies for different reasons. It doesn't mean the reason is worse or the reason is better - but people go to movies for different reasons and some people go to see films for the thrill of the whodunnit. So the dramatic tension for them is the unfolding of events; they don't know what will happen next, and the whole joy of the experience is the unpredictability of the story. I must say that this is not important to me, which is something that is probably obvious to viewers of the film. It's not important to me, necessarily, that the film is predictable or unpredictable. In fact, I almost prefer the film to be inevitable, that the unfolding of events in the film proves itself to be something you could have predicted would happen. And in fact, I think that this view of cinema is born out of an entire history of storytelling, because it enables you to get out of the way of the surprise. So what do I mean? If you look at a story like Macbeth, for example, the witches more or less tell you at the beginning what will happen, so that the pleasure of the experience becomes not what will happen, but why it has happened. I think if the joy of the experience is what will happen, it becomes a picture or piece of art with a limited shelf life. That is to say, you watch it once and you find out what the answer is, and then you can't watch it anymore. It becomes an irrelevancy. If the question of the film, or the question of the work of art, is why it's happened, then it never ceases to be interesting, one hopes, it never ceases to be about the lives of the people in it. And that, for me, is a higher calling for any creative work.

As for We Own The Night - well, I went into it knowing only that it made Frank Ross so mad he threw his remote control at the TV. Either he's missing something or I am, but by the time the urban setting had devolved into a primal war zone right out of Apocalypse Now, I'd long since been happily sold.

Posted by David Lowery at 1:08 AM | Comments (2)

June 2, 2009

Happiness

Last week, Ted Hope posted a speech he gave at The New York Foundation For The Arts, entitled The New Model For Indie Film. It's all great reading, but this brief passage from the outset is what has stuck with me the most:

I know that back in my early days -- when I gave up trying to be happy and instead decided to pursue an interesting life -- I found as a result: things got better and I got a lot happier.

That sentiment seems to trickle down through the rest of Ted's discourse, and it's one I subscribe to entirely, both in terms of my life and in filmmaking. Which isn't to say there's much separation between the two; for myself, and for many of my friends, there's come a point when the two become more than intrinsically linked, more than symbiotically bound. Filmmaking ceases to be a career and becomes a lifestyle, and just as in one's life one must achieve a balance between comfort and integrity, similar choices must be made regarding filmmaking - choices which aren't always the most immediately careerist options (and which can, indeed, entail turning away from it entirely), and certainly don't lead to the happy ending to which we've all, at one point or another, prescribed. But of course, the fallacy of the pursuit of happiness is that it is not simply an impossible end, which no surplus of means can hope to deliver, but that it is not an end at all. It is a side-effect.

I've spent a great deal of time lately - too much time - thinking about what film I should make next. The answer to that question, of course, is whatever film whose concept compels me to bring it to fruition. But I get caught up in worrying about things like right steps and timing and expectations and issues like that, which wouldn't be so irrelevant if I didn't already know that I will never be able to commit to anything that I don't feel wholeheartedly for. I don't want to pay for all my movies out of my own pocket - but I'm prepared to, because when I feel the urge to make something, I know I'm going to make it. There will surely be much sweat and gritting of teeth, but I don't think that would be the same under any circumstances. And all that equity will certainly, as it always has before, be something dear to hold onto in the future, when I begin to doubt the ground beneath my feet.

Posted by David Lowery at 9:01 PM | Comments (1)