January 12, 2019


Early yesterday, news broke that Eric Rohmer passed away at the age of 89. Dave Kehr has a fine obituaryup at the NY Times, and I would recommend Michael J. Anderson’s essay on My Night at Maud’s and The Green Ray for an analysis of his styleThe Six Moral Tales will remain his legacy, but I found his swan song, The Romance of Astree and Celadonto be equally extraodinary. Suzi penned a lovely tribute to the recently deceased film critic Robin Wood yesterday, and who else but Eric Rohmer was the publisher of Wood’s first essay (on Psycho) for Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer’s influence on filmmaking and criticism is incalcuable, and his art will live on as long as we value film as an art form.

Now back to the regularly scheduled sheep programming…

The first quarter viewing calendar I posted last week is off to a rousing start. Sweetgrass opened in NYC after its local premiere at the New York Film Festival, and it’s an overpoweringly tactile experience. Cinema Guild is expanding it to ten more cities through the spring, so check the schedule….now. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash recorded 200 hours of footage of two Norwegian-American sheepherders as they led their flock through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. There are no interviews and the only explanatory text appears at the end of the film before the credits roll. It is a ravishing document of a dying tradition, and one that sets its boots deep in the sheep shit as well as in the rolling plains. This is no romantic gloss of the West, but an immersion in it. Castaing-Taylor and Barbach spent two years filming in and around Big Timber, Montana, which produced a series of short films, but the feature took eight years of editing (and double foot surgery for Lucien after lugging all his equipment over the mountains).

The duo are professors in Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography at Harvard, and their work has previously only been exhibited in art galleriesFrom Sweetgrass, it’s clear that they aim to straddle the boundary between social science and the arts, both documenting culture and reflecting upon it. There are some very artfully composed shots in Sweetgrass, of cowboys framed against the horizon and sheep inching down a mountain in extreme long-shot, that would seem to be outside of an anthropologist’s purview. In a great interview with Cinema Scope, Castaing-Taylor elaborates:

Ambiguity, or any kind of aesthetic opacity that isn’t readily translatable into the limpid clarity of expository prose, is somehow lacking for anthropologists, in their quest for “cultural meaning.”…I’m not desperate for Sweetgrass to be recuperated as a work of visual anthropology, but simply because it doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and because there aren’t that many words in it, doesn’t mean for me mean it isn’t a work of anthropology. It actually feels profoundly so to me, but maybe more a philosophical anthropology.

Castaing-Taylor is working against the grain of his profession to get at the poetry of his subjects’ existence along with the exterior that can be studied. The three subjects under their camera’s microscope here: John, an older, gentle herder; Pat, the hot-headed, younger herder; and a whole mess o’ sheep. Castaing-Taylor had placed between four and eight lavolier microphones on the men and the sheep at all times, and captured some extraordinary footage on his DV camera. Since this was filmed in 2001-2002, the image quality suffers. One often wishes he had the budget for a 35mm setup, but then the remarkable intimacy would be lost. The sound design is often stunning, however, edited by experimental musician Ernst Karel, it’s a cascade of sheep noises – their bleats, honks, skronks, and death rattles.

The only calming sounds in the film, other than the cricket-y silence of nightime, comes from John, a craggy-faced loner who speaks more to the sheep than to Pat. His voice is low and rumbly, and he rarely raises it above a whisper. In  a sequence of great beauty, he urges his “girls” not to stray out of line, repeating the phrase over and over until it sounds like a declaration of love. Filmed against the dusky night sky, it’s a scene of delicate romance.

Then there’s Pat, a younger guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sick of the sleepless nights, whining sheep, bum knee and an injured dog, he calls up his mom and unleashes a torrent of complaints, which he also unleashes on the herd (he calls them “bitches” as opposed to John’s “girls”). But it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to his plight – this is an incredibly exhausting, isolating, and dangerous job. With John only talking to his animals, Pat is alone, unstable, and completely lost.

The ultimate stars, though, aside from the vistas of Montana, are the sheep. The opening shot finds one of these incurious beasts raise its head and stare directly into the camera, daring us to imagine the world within its miniscule brain.


January 5, 2010

It’s time to stagger into the new year with eyes thrust forward. No more list-making and list-arguing and dwelling on the decade that was. Let us break free from our immediate history and nostalgia’s uncomfortably warm grip to embrace the rambunctious year to come. We’re going to squeeze out its tender juices one month at a time, with a touch too much enthusiasm that will emit a pungent, ripe scent of dreams yet to be dashed. Yes, these are the images I will rush to imbibe in the first quarter (and a bit more) of 2010:


A Sixth Part of the World (1926) & The Eleventh Year (1928) (DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

(DVD, Edition Filmmuseum)

Available now from the Edition Filmmuseum, this damnably seductive looking package contains the films Dziga Vertov made immediately prior to his epochal Man With a Movie Camera. The Filmmuseum describes the first as a “poetic travelogue”, and the second as a “visual symphony.” Michael Nyman provides the score, and bilingual booklets are included. This is an all-region release, and is 29.95 Euros, which is more USD than I can afford. I take donations.

Sweetgrass(Theatrical, Cinema Guild)

I’ve been aching to see this elegiac nature film ever since it premiered at the New York Film Festival. Opening this week in NYC and then slowly rolling out across the country in limited release, it tracks two modern-day cowboys as they drive a herd of sheep through the Montana mountains. Recently it nabbed the cover of my favorite film magazine, Cinema Scope, which has a fascinating interview with the director, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, an assistant professor in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. Cinema Guild is looking like the film distributor of the year. Along with Sweetgrass, they’ve also acquired Jacques Rivette’s superb Around a Small Mountain and critical favorite Everyone Else


January 22

Legion (Theatrical, Screen Gems)

Ever since the ridiculously pulpy trailer hit a few months back, I’ve been intoxicated with its possibilities. Visual effects guru Scott Stewart (Iron Man, Sin City), graduates to the director’s chair and opts for total insanity. God deems the human race a lost cause, and sends his angels to destroy the world. Paul Bettany still has love for the flesh, so he swoops in, tears off his wings, and defends the denizens of a roadside bar (including Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton) from annihilation. Somehow flamethrowers are involved.


January 26

King Lear (DVD, E1)

Orson Welles performs as Lear for this episode of “Omnibus” broadcast live on CBS in 1953.


February 15

British Noir Double Feature: The Slasher & Twilight Women (DVD, VCI)

Ever since Film Forum in NYC held a retrospective of British film noir a few months back, I’ve wanted to dig in further. I know nothing about these two other than this: The Slasher stars Joan Collins and received an IMDB comment of “Risible”. Twilight Women stars Laurence Harvey as a nightclub singer accused of murder. Sounds promising enough for me…

Also on this date:

*Clint Eastwood: 35 Years, 35 Films at Warner Brothers (DVD, Warner Brothers)

*Contempt (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)

*Lola Montes (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Ran (Blu-Ray, Lionsgate)


February 19

Shutter Island (Theatrical, Paramount)

Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s insane asylum ghost story was pushed out of Oscar season into the dumping grounds of February. This looks more like horror movie material than award-bait, which leaps this entry up the list. DiCaprio is a Boston cop investigating the disappearance of an asylum inmate. Then he starts to go crazy himself, presumably, with shades of Shock Corridor. From the trailer it looks like Scorsese is having fun – working with waking hallucinations and impish performances from Max Von Sydow and Ben Kingsley.


February 22

A ridiculous booty of home video releases:

*City Girl (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*M (Blu-Ray, Masters of Cinema)

*Make Way For Tomorrow (DVD, Criterion)

Note: Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the greatest movies ever made, and its image heads this post.

*There’s Always Tomorrow (DVD, Masters of Cinema)


March 12

Greenberg(Theatrical, Focus Features)

Going in blind because of my fondness of Ben Stiller and respect for Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). It reads like a rote mid-life crisis comedy, but I’ll have some faith in the combined talent here.


March 19

Vincere(Theatrical, IFC Films)

My good friend assures me this is a sub par work from Marco Bellocchio, and its melodramatic trappings don’t sound suited to his bitterly sardonic gifts. It’s the story of Ida Dalser, the wife whom Benito Mussolini discarded and ignored. But having thoroughly enjoyed his last three features: The Wedding Director, My Mother’s Smile, and Good Morning, Night, I’m going to have an open mind.


March 22 (the day my wallet begs for mercy)

*Bigger Than Life (Blu-Ray, Criterion)

*Days of Heaven (Blu-Ray, Criterion)


March 29

*Red Cliff (Blu-Ray [2-Disc International Version], Magnolia)

One of my favorites from last year was released in a truncated version stateside, which cut out over 2 hours of material. Magnolia is releasing the whole behemoth on Blu-Ray, where the scope of Woo’s accomplishment becomes more apparent. Every element is essential to this ancient war epic. You can read my more ponderous thoughts on this film at Moving Image Source.

Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (DVD, Criterion)

One of the most important and divisive filmmakers working in the world finally gets his home video due in the U.S. This includes Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000), and Colossal Youth (2006). A trilogy of films where Costa charts the lives of immigrants living in the slums of Fontainhas, near Lisbon. I’ve only seen Colossal Youth, which is a monumental, demanding work. I only saw it on a muddy screener, so I don’t even feel like I’ve truly experienced its languorous rhythms. Anyway, sure to be one of the most important releases of the year.


April 5

Piranha (DVD, Shout! Factory)

My Joe Dante education proceeds apace. I continue to think Matinee is a masterpiece.


April 16

Piranha 3D (Theatrical, Dimension)

After I receive my Joe Dante education, I can try Alexandre Aja’s (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes (’06)) take on the material. In 3D. With an out-of-retirement Christopher Lloyd and my new favorite character actor, Adam Scott.


April 23

MacGruber (Theatrical, Universal)

In this SNL-derived parody of MacGyver, Val Kilmer plays a villain named Dieter Von Cunth. That’s enough for me. Also, director Jorma Taccone is part of the “Lonely Island” trio that produces all of SNL’s digital shorts, for a long time the only worthwhile part of the show.


May 1

Piranha (Blu-RayShout! Factory)

Oh, Shout! Factory, you’re really playing with my emotions here. Wait until May just to watch the Blu-Ray? OK, fine. But I’m seeing the Aja version first.