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September 21, 2010

Revisiting julien donkey-boy

I watched julien donkey-boy again the other day. I'd seen it twice prior, once at a friend's house in 2001 and once on opening weekend at the late lamented UA Cine, where the ticket-taker was a mentally handicapped gentleman who would often employ the more dutiful customers to man his post while he took restroom breaks.

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I watched it again because someone asked me if Trash Humpers was my favorite Harmony Korine movie, and I realized it had been too long since I'd seen his early works to rightly say. Revisiting it again was not a revelatory experience; it's a very good film, but it also evidences the degrees to which Korine has grown as a director since. What was more enlightening was imagining the context within which I first saw this back in 1999.

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The structure, the rhythms, the teasing hints of ecstatic loveliness cut short by deliberately ugly edits, the lulling tones of a score denied the opportunity to traditionally flower - all of these play like second hand to me now. But eleven years ago, they must have shaken something in the kid whose sense of cinema was not nearly as expansive as he thought. Herzog was just a storied name at that point, I hadn't yet realized that Gummo was great and the most exciting thing about this movie, prior to seeing it, was that it was shot on this newfangled format called digital video.

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In those days, I heeded breathlessly to the news of any film shot on DV; I hoped with all of them that I'd see proof that I had within my means the technology necessary to make a movie look like a movie, without conceding the possibility that a movie needn't look like a movie to be a movie. What julien donkey-boy looked like was not what I'd been hoping to see, but its shifty melange of low-res electronic artifacts and chemical grain opened up a sinewy new causeway in my conception of aesthetic propriety. This must have been how I learned to love things that looked shitty.

I coincidentally happened upon a passage from Guy Maddin this morning, in his consideration of Von Trier's Medea:

"How does the director get his mise en scéne to appear woven out of virgin wool and other natural fibres native to his region? Turns out he just shot it on crummy old video equipment. Is the gossamer soul Von Trier managed to convey with this clunky analogue gadgetry simply inherent in this previously unloved, grotesquely under-appreciated technology? I can't believe I once derided the look of this medium. As usual, we're moving in the wrong direction - with its every step forward, digital video feels like it's leaving something wonderful behind."

Now I need to watch Mr. Lonely again and see if it still makes me cry.

Posted by David Lowery at September 21, 2010 8:46 AM