September 28, 2010


The Social Network, the opening night selection at the 2010 New York Film Festival (and opening nationwide October 1st), consists of men (and one girl) talking in rooms and around tables. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)  is the reluctant participant in these discussions, hunched over and bristling, much preferring the inscrutable company of his own mind. The essential opacity of these thoughts to his friends and foes, Zuckerberg’s intractable isolation, is the nexus around which director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin spin their tale of mis-communication and betrayal.

Sorkin frames the story of Facebook’s founding through legal depositions of two concurrent lawsuits facing Zuckerberg. One from his supposed best friend and former CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the other from three schoolmates who proposed a similar social networking site called The Harvard Connection.  Their competing testimony shifts the point of view between all three of these perspectives, offering differing visions of Zuckerberg’s character, Citizen Kane style (Sorkin referenced Rashomon at the press conference, but the focus on the unstable image of one man, as opposed to an event, is far more indebted to Kane – for a further elaboration of the comparison, see Michael J. Anderson’s essay here).

The dialogue is read in staccato bursts of defensive manuevers, everyone protecting their intellectual territory. Eisenberg zooms through the script with brittle intensity, a man of supreme arrogance, intelligence and insecurity insulating himself with words. It’s a bravura performance, in which Zuckerberg’s mask of intellectual impassivity is cracked for a few brief moments, introducing doubts about how much of an asshole he really is. The puzzled, crestfallen expression on his face after his final split with Saverin is tantalizing in its ambiguity. Joined by a truly Mephistophelean turn from Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker (look at his manipulations in the photo above), the wide-eyed innocence of Andrew Garfield, the blue-blood hauteur of Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss Twins (using the facial motion-capture technique Fincher pioneered in the underrated Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and a scene-stealing demolition job by Douglas Urbanski as former Harvard president Larry Summers, The Social Network is brimming with revealing put downs, glances and asides.

That it’s taken me this long to get to Fincher says a lot about his role here, a true collaborator with Sorkin and his cast (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth and the fine pulsating score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the film, like all of Fincher’s work, is beautiful in strange ways. There is the infernal darkening red hues in which he shoots the Harvard sequences, a simmering hormonal pool of class resentments and hard-ons. One sequence, in which he inter-cuts a Dionysian “final club” party with Zuckerberg coding his early “FaceMash” site is revealing of the unreliability of Zuckerberg’s POV. As he builds his site, an ode to a male’s wounded ego, which allows campus libidos to vote on female students’ hotness, we get visions of stripped down co-eds cavorting in the aristocratic party that Mark would never be invited to. The party seems like his resentful projection, but it’s presented as a simple cross-cutting sequence, or his version of the truth. All three POVs should be treated as unreliable, or at least as clouded by self-interest. By the end, when Zuckerberg’s every move seems both justifiable and monstrous, I could only think of Marlene Dietrich’s closing summation in Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”


The other triumph in the main slate was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (coming to theaters in the U.S. in  March 2011 from Strand Releasing)Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal, and ultimately, between possible worlds. Boonmee’s caretaker, Auntie Jen (Jenjira Pongpas, from Weerasethakul’s previous Syndromes and a Century), complains about the Laotian caretaker of his farm, worried that he doesn’t bathe. Later, Boonmee is afraid that he created bad karma because “I’ve killed too many communists.” This speaks to the crackdown on Communism in the region following the war in Vietnam, in which peasants informed upon and fought against Communist cells or were accused themselves. The monkey ghosts which haunt the film can be read as the spirits of the Communists who fled into the forest, although that is only one, much too reductive interpretation.

And yes, the monkey ghosts arrive as naturally as the disfigured princess, who arrives in a deliriously beautiful set-piece that Joe staged as an homage to the royal costume dramas of his youth, although I doubt they contained the amorous catfish in his version. But they should have. Boonmee’s procession into death is also a procession into Weerasethakul’s personal memory and history, as well as the history of his films. Along with Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee returns from Syndromes, as Boonmee’s nephew, and later as the monk from the previous film, as the personal blends with the artistic and historical. There are endless strands to analyze and untangle, but there are also the manifest pleasures of lolling in his gentle, comic rhythms and sparklingly beautiful compositions (it was shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35, often using day-for-night). By the time it descends into Plato’s cave and encompasses the whole history of moving images, I knew I had seen a masterpiece. And I want to watch it again right now.


As space is running short, some quick notes on other defining moments from the festival:

Film Socialisme, directed by Jean-Luc Godard (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 6PM and Oct. 8th at 3PM)

A lament for Europe, in layers of video and text. HD images of a decadent cruise through the Mediterranean are interrupted by degraded and pixelated footage of mobbed dance floors and YouTube videos of mewling cats. He gets incredible effects from reducing the video resolution, getting cubist collages of capitalist excess and moments of incredible, uncanny beauty. One image, a hand placed on a window, then pulled back, obscured by the degraded image and made ghostly and strange, spoke more to me about the cultural losses he refers to so incessantly. The cruise ship docks, replaced by a family owned gas station, whose parents (and then children) are running for election, chased down by a relentless news team. A young boy, adept at slapstick, scares them away with a stick and then conducts an invisible symphony with it. So referentially dense, it would ideally be watched with hyperlinks attached to all the quotes and film clips, as well as the concrete poetry of the partially-translated subtitles, which he puckishly described as “Navajo English”.

The RobberDirected by Benjamin Heisenberg (no distribution, screens Sep. 29th at 9:15PM)

In this propulsive genre workout, a prisoner trains in his cell to be a long-distance runner. Upon release he wins a marathon, but, alas, keeps robbing banks. Incredibly, it’s the true story of Johann Kastenberger (changed to Rettenberger in the film, and played with wiry athleticism by Andreas Lust), or “Pump Gun Ronnie”, who wore a Reagan mask during his reign of terror. The superbly controlled action sequences are shot in sinuous steadicam long takes, and one heist in particular stands out. Lust, after holding up one bank, sprints to another one, as the cop cars are busy investigating the first. Setting his camera up across the street, Heisenberg resolutely keeps his distance from any kind of psychologizing, he’s just here to emphasize the physical feats. Then Lust bursts out of the second, and a chase erupts when a cop car foolishly tries to run him down. Racing up a parking garage, and then down and outside through a cellar, it’s a white-knuckle affair shot with daredevil fearlessness. The steadicam operator was sprinting down hallways as fast as Lust, with little cutting and total spatial coherence.


May 18, 2010

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A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

The fun began when The Independent reported that the film would be subtitled in “Navajo English”:

as in old Westerns where the Native Americans spoke in choppy phrases. Because the dramatakes place on a cruise ship where no one speaks the same language, Godard has fashioned his subtitles concisely to say the least. If a character is saying “give me your watch”, the subtitle will read “You, me, watch.”

This is both hilarious and conceptually apt, and will make initial screenings of the film difficult to parse for mono-linguists like myself. Critics will have to work for this one. Manohla Dargis and Ben Kenigsberg take their (provisional) shots at the NY Times and Time Out Chicago, respectively. Dargis charts out a structure: cruise ship-gas station-cities and a hint of a theme, taken from an interview at “the Americans liberated Europe by making it dependent.” The full interview with Godard, conducted by friend and former collaborator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, has been translated by Craig Keller at his blog Cinemasparagus.

Kenigsberg focuses more on the visuals, of a “woman reads Balzac at a gas station while standing next to a llama”, and says it is “stunning to look at—memorable images include a man lecturing to what appears to be an empty auditorium and a boy in a Soviet shirt conducting a phantom orchestra”, but considers it more “tossed off” than his previous essay films (recently Notre Musique (2004) and In Praise of Love (2001)).

For a thumbail reaction internationally, the Letras de Cine blog has been posting number ratings from critics worldwide, and FILM SOCIALISME has the highest average ranking (9.36 out of 10) out of every film polled (Manoel de Oliveira’s highly anticipated THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA is in second with a 8.73). In any case, it’ll be a long wait to see it in a U.S. theater, which is why I was thrilled to see Dargis link to, which is streaming the film for 7 EUR through tomorrow. However, it doesn’t look like it is accessible to people in the U.S. (and Spanish critic Miguel Marias said it wasn’t working for him either, in a comment at Cinemasparagus).

Godard canceled his press conference appearance with a characteristically enigmatic fax to festival head Thierry Fremeaux, as Dargis reports:  “‘problems of the Greek type”’had prevented him from attending and that he would go to his death for the festival, but not one step more.’”


Some rare screenings this week as the Migrating Forms festival rolls on in NYC. First was a trio of recent shorts from Jean-Marie Straub, Artemis’s Knee (2008), The Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2008), and The Witches-Women Among Women (2009). Bricard is the last film he made with Daniele Huillet, his long-time collaborator and wife who passed away in 2006.  For context and analysis of these works, Richard Brody’s laudatory short piece at The New Yorker is the place to start. He has a handle on the source texts (by Cesare Pavese, Heinrich Schulz) and music (Mahler), that my circumscribed education has…circumscribed.

The most striking work for me is Jean Bricard, which opens on an epically long take of a camera riding along on a boat. As it passes a autumnal B&W landscape of skeletal trees dotted with bulbous nests, one expects it to resolve itself as a simple, starkly beautiful  landscape film (shot by Irina Lubtchansky and her brilliant late husband William). But then there is a jolt of humor, as the boat passes two consecutive arrows, each pointing in opposite directions. This graphic comedy rouses one out of reverie and into the story they tell, which emerges in voice-over from Mr. Bricard, a French Resistance Fighter during WWII who was recorded by sociologist Jean-Yves Petiteau in 1994. The film slowly reveals itself to be about decay and loss. As Bricard recalls an uncle who was murdered in the high grass by Vichy forces, Straub-Huillet circle round the abandoned Coton Island where he lived, framing the sunken cafes and muddy shorelines of a river raised, re-directed and polluted, essentially destroying the island and relocating its inhabitants. History and geography both show the scars of time.


The last item on my viewing list is an early David Cronenberg feature, Stereo (1969), also part of Migrating Forms. It’s a resourceful piece of no-budget sci-fi that utilizes the Brutalist architecture of Scarborough College in Canada to its fullest extent. Long corridors, slanting windows, and slab-like structures are the rather ascetically imposing settings for some telepathic experimentation. Cronenberg shot the film with no synchronous sound, recording a lengthy voice-over of doctors’ reports, analyzing the actions of the “patients” on-screen. These subjects are college-age kids given ESP on the operating table, and thrust into the habitrail of the campus to study the possible development of a new kind of language and family units. The voice-over informs us that a couple of the patients have had their larynxes removed in order to further force the issue of ESP language formation.

The structure an ingenious way to save on sound costs, but the voice-over eventually falls into tedium, and the frequently striking compositions of men fading into the architecture becomes the sole force of the film. The narrative loses drive, but Cronenberg never loses the lack for conjuring uncanny images. A curio, but one well-worth seeking out. It’s available as an extra on the Blue Underground DVD and Blu-Ray for his racing film, Fast Company.