Salı, Nisan 25, 2006

Hedonism for the Whole Family: Duck Soup Cinema

Saturday's Duck Soup Cinema was OK by me. But at least this time I was prepared.

The Madison revue, which presents an hour of vaudeville followed by a silent film with live organ accompaniment in the Overture Center, has a pretty large following, mostly among families and the elderly. (One of the most remarkable things about Sunday's Madison Opera performance of The Magic Flute is that they somehow managed to find patrons even older than those who attend Duck Soup; folks in their nineties were hobbling out to find their seats.) I've never minded that I, as a 29-year-old, look a little out of place at Duck Soup. It's a chance to see silent cinema with live music, so I show up and I'm happy to be there. Besides, we had a higher quotient of older customers at the Organ Loft in Salt Lake City (where silent films were also shown), and for Utahns it's a bit more frightening, understanding that the older you are in SLC, the greater a chance that you're a practicing polygamist. But anyhow. The first time we went to Duck Soup Cinema was in one of its last appearances at the Oscar Meyer Theatre at the old Overture Center; Duck Soup has been running off and on since the early 80's, only growing more popular over the years until it began to play sold out shows, so there was a bittersweet feeling as they went through the vaudeville before an amazingly raucous crowd (those old folks can still kick it up) enjoyed Harold Lloyd's classic Speedy.

We tried to make the Buster Keaton film Seven Chances last year, but it was already sold out when we arrived two hours early. We were smarter this year and bought our tickets to the two spring Duck Soup programs, Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! and a collection of shorts by Charlie Chaplin, as soon as they became available. We took my wife's parents to Safety Last! so they could have their first encounter with the magic we felt when we attended Speedy.

Instead, the vaudeville was mildly shocking. Not to me so much, but my empathetic nerve was twitching. The crowd--again, mostly senior citizens and families with very young children--were treated to an appearance by the Cherry Pop Burlesque, a Madison-based group that presents scantily clad (or not clad at all) women with men in animal costumes and lots of smarmy jokes. Apart from one gal wearing not much at all, most were relatively clothed, and Olive Talique (Angela Richardson) was very, very funny doing a thick Bronx accent and spreading her arms as she talked, as though trying to physically describe how broad was her comedy. The laughs from the audience were sporadic. Many of us were laughing. Others--the mothers in the crowd, I think--just kind of let their jaws drop while they covered the eyes of their children. The Cherry Pop folks, who were plugging an upcoming adults-only show at the Overture Center, left to polite applause and were replaced by Jazzworks, a group of fit girls in leotards who dance expressively and suggestively to songs from "Chicago" and the like. You know, the kind of songs about how you know how to dress to please your man, and how pleased he's going to see you when he sees you in that new number you bought, and dump that other girl, and so on, while groins gyrate. The young boy sitting ahead of me, who had expressed some interest in the women of the Cherry Pop burlesque, leaned forward each time the dancers left the stage between songs, and each time leaned further forward, until one could wager as to whether he'd hit the floor or puberty first.

At last the Jazzworks girls left, and something new was in the air: tension, you'd call it. Some of us were pleased, some of us not so much. At last the most harmless moment in the evening arrived, when the truly terrible a-capella group The Madhatters took the stage. The Madhatters are a rotating group of Wisconsin college guys who clearly just joined the group to meet girls, and sing the kind of Boys II Men songs that have been out of style since...Boys II Men. None of them can sing worth a lick, which is why they crowd a dozen of them onto the stage, all wailing at once like wounded dogs, one of them carrying a Mad Hatter's hat, bearing it in his hands as though it were some Masonic holy device that would grant them approval from the audience. One of their last songs, to contribute to the mood of the evening, was about a man who walks in on his ex-girlfriend while she's taking a shower, and proceeds to spy on her from the dark. Good job, guys.

Finally the Cherry Pop Burlesque returned, and I'd never been so happy to see them, although there audible groans from parents in the audience. It was the door-prize portion of the evening. We checked our raffle tickets, and a lucky girl who looked to be all of 15 won a free pass to an evening with the Cherry Pop Burlesque. (The first time I attended Duck Soup, a boy of eight or nine won tickets to Late Night Catechism, so this seemed appropriate.)

As for the film? Well, it was Safety Last!, my favorite Harold Lloyd film, the one where he dangles from the clock above the city. But that's almost beside the point. I'd seen the film before, and what stuck with me more was the moment in Jazzworks when one of the dancers dropped her feather boa; to pick it up again would ruin the choreography, so she kept dancing while pretending to twirl the invisible boa through the air. Sublime.

This Saturday's Duck Soup, coming a month later, featured three Charlie Chaplin shorts. There was to be four, but the fourth, "The Immigrant," arrived with a reel missing, so it wasn't shown; still this left about 80 minutes of Mutual Studio shorts to screen: "The Rink," in which Chaplin gracefully rollerskates through the spreading chaos he creates; "Easy Street," in which Chaplin becomes a cop and matches wits with a thug; and "Behind the Screen," a parody of the making of silent films.

Olive Talique was back, this time co-hosting with Duck Soup stalwart Joe Thompson. They were playing George and Gracie, as Talique admitted in an interview with Madison's weekly paper The Isthmus, and this seems appropriate, since the curly-haired Thompson is always a pleasing throwback to the style of comedy practiced by Jack Benny and Groucho and other comedians from yesterday. Aside from Talique's appearance, there were fewer moments of scandal this time around. Sure, the juggler known as The Truly Remarkable Loon kept dropping his props, but the audience loved it. And then there was the moment when the entire Cherry Pop Burlesque suddenly reappeared on the stage, with the Cherry Pop emcee (who looks a lot like John Waters) encouraging the older members of the audience to come to the Overture Cherry Pop show, which will promise much to those who "admire the female form." Oh, and then there were the shorts themselves; who could remember that in "Easy Street," Chaplin accidentally sits on a doper's needle and becomes rejuvenated so that he can defeat his enemies? (Just like real heroin!) Or that in "Behind the Screen," Chaplin is in one scene mistaken for a homosexual, and basically derided as a fairy by his co-worker? (It's a silent film, but the gestures scream "fairy.") It was a sound message to the parents in the audience--you can't hide your kids from indecency, not even in the old, black-and-white films. There's an ongoing myth in American culture right now that our society has become so decayed that it's imperative we try to return to a purer, more moralistic time. When even Chaplin is refusing to succumb to santization, I guess you either keep your kids' noses buried in the Dick and Jane books, or you head on out to discover the joyful hedonism of the Cherry Pop Burlesque. One or the other, take your pick. There was a kid--of eight or nine--who was giggling madly at everything Charlie Chaplin did (these films are from 1916!), so I think, for that kid if not that family, the evening was worth the risks.

Cumartesi, Nisan 22, 2006


Very tired, back from the Duck Soup Cinema presentation of 3 Mutual shorts by Charlie Chaplin, preceded by an hour of vaudeville. I may have to write something more substantial about it later. There's something subversively funny about how Duck Soup continues to promote the Cherry Pop Burlesque during their vaudeville hour, despite the fact that their audience consists primarily of senior citizens and very small children.

Another story of mine, "Le Roy, Talma, Bosco," will be appearing online at Dogmatika.com in June. I'm not sure how I feel about the story, which I wrote a couple years ago (elapsed time=gradually building resentment and paranoid loathing), but it will be nice to have it finally be read.

This week I'm on vacation to the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival (Ebertfest) in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Should be a great time. John Malkovich will be there with "Ripley's Game," Terry Zwigoff will show a never-before-screened cut of "Bad Santa" (why not his new film, for criminy's sake?), and the Alloy Orchestra will accompany a Rudolph Valentino film. Plus a film I loved that no one saw, David Mamet's "Spartan"--a true overlooked gem.

Pazartesi, Nisan 17, 2006

Le Absurditae

First of all, my friend Rich at the Cable and Tweed blog brought to my attention the fact that Jewlie at the Fabulist listed Optical Atlas in her top 5 MP3 blogs (and Cable and Tweed is a much-deserved #1). It's really nice to see someone's reading and appreciating my other site.

Also, I have a piece of microfiction called "Clear Crossing" that will be appearing in the first issue of the zine Le Absurditae.

That Murnau essay below? I wrote it twice. Yesterday's Easter thunderstorm took out the power right as I was about to wrap it up, and it wasn't saved. So I rewrote the whole thing in the afternoon. If it seems a bit hasty in places, that's why.

What I'm listening to now: NPR's All Songs Considered discusses The Beatles 1965: The Capitol Records. Birthday list this for me please.

Pazar, Nisan 16, 2006

Journeys Into Night: The German Films of F.W. Murnau

The University of Wisconsin's Cinematheque each weekend shows a different free film for the public, and the winter/spring 2006 series "Journeys Into Night" focused on the German silent films of director F.W. Murnau.

Murnau's best known film, Nosferatu, launched the series, and I had to miss it. That night was a snowstorm of intimidating scale. The elements--deserted streets with only snowed-in cars parked along the side, and a pall of dread hanging in the air--might have been perfect circumstances to watch Nosferatu with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin. By all accounts, the theater was packed despite the weather. The last time I saw Nosferatu it was also packed--at the Organ Loft in Salt Lake City, one of my favorite places to watch films. The Organ Loft is a dance & dining hall near the heart of Mormonville, but in the evenings they put out some chairs on the dance floor and roll down a modest white screen, and the organist, either Blaine Gale or David Massey, pounds on the keys of the Mighty Wurlitzer (an organ that, in a previous life, accompanied many of these silent films when they were first-run), setting the pipes, which completely surround the audience, to a thunderous noise that will easily drown out your home theater's speakers. The seats at the Organ Loft are as uncomfortable as any theater seats can be--because they're not theater seats, just straight-backed chairs that were unstacked from the corner. During the best films, you don't really notice; The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks was about two-and-a-half hours long and I was transported by the Mighty Wurlitzer, the cartoonishly surreal sets of William Cameron Menzies, and the swashbuckling of Fairbanks, so the chair and its damaging effect on my back was only noticed much later. At the Organ Loft we also saw The Phantom of the Opera and West of Zanzibar with Lon Chaney, and for Phantom, the organist donned a mask and even threw a little Andrew Lloyd Weber into the mix as he improvised his score. Nosferatu was memorable not just because I dragged my bemused parents to the theater, but because of the high Goth quotient in the crowd--a crowd that usually only consists of senior citizens, a couple of families, and the occasional younger film buff. The Goths will turn out for a silent film only if it's called "Nosferatu."

As talented as pianist David Drazin is (Chicago-based musician Drazin accompanied most of the Cinematheque Murnau screenings), I don't really think his performance could have lived up to my memory of the Mighty Wurlitzer's pulsating organ score on that Halloween in Salt Lake City. On the screen above the organist's head were projected the definitive Murnau images: the vampire played by Max Schreck beneath ghastly makeup (he's made to resemble one of the plague-infested rats that arrive with his coffin), the Expressionistic camera angles and black splashes of shadow. Nosferatu is based on Dracula, of course; the Bram Stoker estate sued, so depending on the print you're watching, the names may or may not stick to Stoker's novel. Murnau simplifies the book considerably--he's a great fan of simple, pure storytelling for his silent films--removing a multitude of sub-plots and secondary characters. (This is the antithesis to Coppola's film, which bent over backward to squeeze them all in.) It's taken this horror fan a while, but I now believe that Murnau's film is the greatest adaptation of the book. The key is not just Murnau's simplification, nor the Schreck performance (so good that 2000's Shadow of the Vampire hypothesizes that Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe, really was a vampire) or the German Expressionist touches; the key is the finale, in which Mina submits her body to the vampire, and he has his fill of her until the dawn arrives, when the rays of the morning sun cast him into oblivion. Murnau's films often divide reality along Manichean lines, but in Nosferatu he first shows a shading--that sometimes one has to submit to evil in order to perform good. This will recur most prominently in one of his finest films, Faust.

The next two films in the Cinematheque's series formed a double-feature, and that's just, as they're too slight to stand alone. The Haunted Castle falls into the "old dark house" category, a mystery that seems to have supernatural overtones, until all is explained and the mastermind is revealed in the final scene. This genre was worn to threads in the 20's and 30's, and Murnau doesn't depart from the formula too much. If it seems a step backward from Nosferatu, that's because it is: The Haunted Castle, made in 1921, is one of the earliest surviving Murnau films. Notably, the print we watched was a superior restoration, but with no English translation to the German intertitles--these were read off-screen by a German professor, and the fact of his disembodied voice provided the spooky factor that Murnau's strained (if charming) film lacked. We arrived late and the double-feature was packed, so my wife and I sat in the front row, where the film professors sit. (I could see why--the image completely engulfed us, and now in my memory it seems that we moved about within the film while the events unfolded.) The professor who sat next to me was scribbling away through the entire film, and hardly seemed to look up, so desperate was he to note down what he wasn't looking at. In one dream sequence, a boy gorges himself on the cake the chef wouldn't let him taste during the day; while a priest feeds him one morsel after another, he periodically turns to slap the chef. The audience laughed at each slap, and each time, the professor looked up from his notes, saw nothing, scribbled, and so on, like a mechanical extension of the mechanical pattern on the screen. I'm not sure that he ever saw what we were laughing at. It must have been a terrific essay, though.

The second feature, Journey Into Night, is typical of Murnau's melodramas, and not very exciting or imaginative, despite the title. The plot is Murnau simplicity: a rich surgeon leaves his fiancee for a showgirl, and shacks up with her in a fishing village. There, the showgirl falls for a blind painter. Despite this, the surgeon restores the painter's sight, and the painter and the showgirl leave together; finally, the surgeon returns to his fiancee. Not a remarkable shot in the film, so far as I can recall; at least The Haunted Castle had one memorable image, of a couple staring at each other across an impossibly tall corridor, the chasm in their relationship made visual in Expressionistic terms. Murnau lets the plot carry the weight in Journey Into Night, but this plot would be better served in something like The Blue Angel, years later. During this screening, there were no interstitial cards at all. Our helpful narrator provided reconstructed dialogue taken from the original script. With the title cards missing, the viewer got an unusual education in the art of silent filmmaking. Strange skips occurred in the action where the cards should have appeared. Often the actors would not even open their lips to speak, assuming the title cards would do the work for them; instead, they looked at each other meaningfully, as though telepathically projecting their dialogue. It was like watching a silent film as performed by the X-Men. But it was appropriate, too, for this retrospective. Murnau wanted to get rid of title cards; he wanted a pure cinema, storytelling with only images. He almost achieved it here, by accident, although the plot was only simple to decipher because of its predictibility. Journey Into Night is Murnau's earliest surviving film.

Phantom, made a year later, was only a slight improvement. Written by Thea von Harbou, who wrote many of the great early German films (including films of husband Fritz Lang), Phantom is another unremarkable melodrama with only a few touches of style. Once the plot is established--a poet pretends to have money and fame to impress a girl, while falling deeper into debt--you settle back and wait for some interesting technique. About the only thing I remember a couple of months later is a brief scene of the protagonist fleeing through the town square while the buildings seem to lurch toward him in pursuit. This illusion appears again briefly in his superior film The Last Laugh.

On the basis of my disappointment with the last two melodramas, I decided to pass on two other early Murnau films, The Burning Soil (1922) and The Grand Duke's Finances (1924). The notes by the Cinematheque about The Burning Soil give a good indication of the difficulty and luck required in discovering prints of silent films (so many nitrates of which were burned for the silver): "The Burning Soil is said to have been saved by a Jesuit priest, who bought a nitrate print of it at a sidewalk sale."

I did return for Tartuffe (1926). Based on the famous Moliere comedy about a debauched priest who lectures a young man on morality while attempting to seduce his wife, Murnau here frames the action with another, contemporary story: an estranged son returns to see his dying grandfather, who is about to will everything to her nurse, whom she believes loves her more. When the son realizes his grandfather is being poisoned by the greedy nurse, he forces the two to watch a play of Tartuffe, staged like the play within Hamlet to unmask the villain. Tartuffe, the priest of the play, is played by Emil Jannings, a German star of the stage and screen, today only known--if at all--for his role as the professor in The Blue Angel. In The Blue Angel he was the corrupted, but here he's the corruptor, and he relishes the part. The portly actor moves at a glacial pace with his head buried in the Bible, but when he notices his pupil's young wife, his eyes widen lecherously. I have a weakness for stories of debauched, hypocritical clergymen; Balzac's Droll Stories and The Monk are among my favorite novels. So I did enjoy this a great deal.

After a month-long break, the series resumed with one of Murnau's most famous, The Last Laugh (1924). Here we finally see Murnau moving away from the conventions of most silent films, most notably with completely absent title-cards; apart from a few documents or letters we read over the shoulders of the characters, and an introduction and epilogue, there's no dialogue or description of action. The audience is forced to become an active participant--not that the action is hard to follow. The story, as simple as any Murnau ever told, follows a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings again) who suffers first a demotion because of his old age, and then the humiliation of his friends when he's caught trying to fool them into thinking he's kept his old job. With the intertitles gone, Murnau concentrates more heavily on the symbolic importance of objects: the doorman's uniform, which he's forced to surrender; the letter of demotion that blurs while he struggles to read it; et cetera. The camera also begins to move with greater energy, sweeping toward and away from the characters in another effort to urge an emotional connection with the events--and it works. The oddest thing about the film is the playful, Tartuffe-like turn the film takes in its last act. As the protagonist's situation reaches its most dire moments, the absent narrator finally interrupts to deliberately force a happy ending upon the character. It's unbelievable, and that's the point. It's baffling, too, but the relief was palpable and the audience left smiling and happy, as though they couldn't care less that Murnau pulled a fast one on them. The title, in fact, refers to the "last laugh" that Jannings has on those who would try to push him aside; it's a laugh we're intended to share, despite the artificiality.

Faust (1926), finally, is one of Murnau's greatest achievements, and an appropriate close to the program. Based on Goethe's work, it's all Murnau: a simple story told almost entirely by images, with a comic turn by Jannings as Mephisto (back in Tartuffe mode, though this time he darts rapidly across the screen), and visual flourishes every bit as striking as those in Nosferatu. Gosta Ekman plays Faust as a hypocritical old man who rushes to invoke Satan when things turn foul for his village, struck by the plague, then runs away when it works and Mephisto arrives; distancing himself from Mephisto's debauched suggestions, Faust is also quick to take them up, and top them, when he has the actual objects of desire set before him. The imagery in this film is stunning right from the start. Jannings, his skin caked in paint, his eyes glowing white, stands before two vast wings while confronting a glowing archangel whose jagged, thorny sword seems to have been cut from the walls of a Caligari set. A few moments later, when we see the village, it too seems to be taken straight from Caligari--the buildings press together as if for warmth, the pointed roofs nearly touching, and the roads are dark, precipitously sloping alleys. Mephisto looms above the miniature city like the demon from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia (and a fantasia this is), and from his outstretched wings billows a black smoke--the plague. Faust is first tempted by Mephisto when he throws his Bible into the fire. The book snaps open upon the flames and the pages turn to a Satanic incantation ("I guess when you throw the Bible on the fire, it turns into the Necronomicon," my wife commented). Faust is told to stand at a crossroads and call to Mephisto three times; this he does after drawing a circle in the dirt below him, and after calling to Mephisto, the circle turns to fire and rises above his head like the rising rings around the robot in Metropolis. Mephisto, who was previously seen riding a hairy beast through the sky beside Death and another monstrous rider, now appears as a monk, although with the same sinister glowing eyes. This is when Faust flees, which is, come to think of it, kind of understandable. Faust finally is persuaded to accept Mephisto's contract on a "trial" basis. For one day, he can have Satan as his servant. They first set out to seduce a duchess in another land, and for this Arabesque sequence Faust rides a flying carpet over a pretty amazing miniature landscape. David Drazin, our pianist, outdid himself, quickly turning out an improvised score that sounded like it was coming from a full orchestra, but perfectly dialing it back into a sumptuous march as the camera settled upon a dozen dancing ladies gliding toward a throne. I should also mention that by this point in the film, Jannings has now donned dyed-black hair and a black cape, so that he looks something like Dracula. He has a terrific scene midway through the film, in one of the most brilliant digressions from the source material, in which he seduces a portly middle-aged woman simply because he can. She falls in love with him while he tries to shake her (of course, he cops a feel before leaving), and the action is hilariously paralleled with Faust's seduction of the prettiest and purest churchgoing girl in town, Gretchen. The tone has changed dramatically by the time Mephisto tricks Faust into losing his girl, and Gretchen finds herself carrying Faust's child through a snowy landscape, turned away from every door because of the stigma of an unwed mother. The sequence her child freezes to death--buried in a mound of snow which, in her feverish hallucination, she sees to be a cradle--is lacerating; just as she is found half-dead in the snow, and about to be arrested for killing her baby, she screams out for Faust's help: a quick dolly into her open screaming mouth, and that image is held transparent over the screen while we dash across the countryside, finally arriving at a distant cliff, where the pensive Faust is suddenly jolted by the psychic impact of his beloved's despair. And this is a film from 1926.

Jannings, so brilliant (and different) in Tartuffe, The Last Laugh, and Faust, would go on to the aforementioned Blue Angel before making the unfortunate decision to ally himself with the Nazis. (As would Thea von Harbou, screenwriter of Phantom; this would end her marriage to Fritz Lang, who wisely saw Nazism for what it was and fled to America, subsequently denouncing it through American propaganda pictures like Fury.) Murnau left for the U.S. much sooner. In 1927, a year after Faust, his career would reach its apogee with Sunrise, widely considered to be one of the greatest pictures ever made; it, too, held back on the title cards, and succeeded in fulfilling Murnau's dream of making a pure visual piece of storytelling. Talkies soon emerged, and the filmmaking art that Murnau helped refine would stumble backward, as though, in the zeal to bring sound to film, studios had forgotten the visual element. Murnau would make his last film, Tabu, in 1931, but he never truly succeeded in the American market. He died in a car accident the same year.

Salı, Nisan 11, 2006

100 Essential Films

What follows is a list, to ever be revised again and again, of what I consider the 100 essential films anyone should see who wants a basic education in film. Ideally, after watching these films you'd have a good idea of what you'd like to watch next.

There are a few obvious ones that are missing: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Star Wars, for example; if the list were longer, I'd include them, but it seems that almost everyone's seen the films, so I let them go. Birth of a Nation is deliberately excluded, as I'm campaigning against the nonsense that prevails about this film being "essential." I've also handicapped the list by excluding my favorite film of all time, the one I'm always willing to drop everything to watch--Jason and the Argonauts; although be certain that I love all the films on this list (some more than others).

I think your average film buff would look at this list and call it boring. That's the point. It's a beginner's course in film, not advanced studies. Granted, I threw a couple of wild cards in there, such as The Saragossa Manuscript, and other great films that I feel are underexposed. But for the most part, it's a primer that is meant to show the possibilities of film.

And finally, in the interest of perspective, the cut-off date for eligibility is 1996--ten years gone.

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (D: Robert Wiene, Germany 1920)
2. Safety Last! (D: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, U.S. 1923)
3. Greed (D: Erich von Stroheim, U.S. 1924)
4. Battleship Potemkin (D: Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1925)
5. Flesh and the Devil (D: Clarence Brown, U.S. 1926)
6. Sunrise (D: F.W. Murnau, U.S. 1926)
7. Metropolis (D: Fritz Lang, Germany 1927)
8. The General (D: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, U.S. 1927)
9. Un Chien Andalou (D: Luis Bunuel, France 1929)
10. City Lights (D: Charlie Chaplin, U.S. 1931)
11. Trouble in Paradise (D: Ernst Lubitsch, U.S. 1932)
12. Duck Soup (D: Leo McCarey, U.S. 1933)
13. It Happened One Night (D: Frank Capra, U.S. 1934)
14. L'Atalante (D: Jean Vigo, France 1934)
15. Port of Shadows (D: Marcel Carne, France 1938)
16. The Rules of the Game (D: Jean Renoir, France 1939)
17. Fantasia (D: Various, U.S. 1940)
18. The Philadelphia Story (D: George Cukor, U.S. 1940)
19. Citizen Kane (D: Orson Welles, U.S. 1941)
20. Sullivan's Travels (D: Preston Sturges, U.S. 1941)
21. Casablanca (D: Michael Curtiz, U.S. 1942)
22. Double Indemnity (D: Billy Wilder, U.S. 1944)
23. To Have and Have Not (D: Howard Hawks, U.S. 1944)
24. Open City (D: Roberto Rossellini, Italy 1945)
25. A Matter of Life and Death (D: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, U.K. 1946)
26. Beauty and the Beast (D: Jean Cocteau, France 1946)
27. The Big Sleep (D: Howard Hawks, U.S. 1946)
28. Notorious (D: Alfred Hitchcock, U.S. 1946)
29. The Bicycle Thief (D: Vittorio de Sica, Italy 1948)
30. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (D: John Huston, U.S. 1948)
31. Orpheus (D: Jean Cocteau, France 1949)
32. The Third Man (D: Carol Reed, U.K. 1949)
33. All About Eve (D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, U.S. 1950)
34. Rashomon (D: Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1950)
35. Sunset Blvd. (D: Billy Wilder, U.S. 1950)
36. Singin' in the Rain (D: Stanley Donen, U.S. 1952)
37. Tokyo Story (D: Yasujiro Ozu, Japan 1953)
38. On the Waterfront (D: Elia Kazan, U.S. 1954)
39. Seven Samurai (D: Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1954)
40. All That Heaven Allows (D: Douglas Sirk, U.S. 1955)
41. Kiss Me Deadly (D: Robert Aldrich, U.S. 1955)
42. Ordet (D: Carl Th. Dreyer, Denmark 1955)
43. Pather Panchali (D: Satyajit Ray, India 1955)
44. Rififi (D: Jules Dassin, France 1955)
45. The Searchers (D: John Ford, U.S. 1956)
46. Le Notte Bianche (D: Luchino Visconti, Italy 1957)
47. Wild Strawberries (D: Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957)
48. Vertigo (D: Alfred Hitchcock, U.S. 1958)
49. Hiroshima Mon Amour (D: Alain Resnais, France 1959)
50. North By Northwest (D: Alfred Hitchcock, U.S. 1959)
51. The 400 Blows (D: Francois Truffaut, France 1959)
52. Breathless (D: Jean-Luc Godard, France 1960)
53. La Dolce Vita (D: Federico Fellini, Italy 1960)
54. L'Avventura (D: Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy 1960)
55. Psycho (D: Alfred Hitchcock, U.S. 1960)
56. Rocco and His Brothers (D: Luchino Visconti, Italy 1960)
57. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (D: Mikio Naruse, Japan 1960)
58. Viridiana (D: Luis Bunuel, Spain 1961)
59. La Jetee (D: Chris Marker, France 1962)
60. Lawrence of Arabia (D: David Lean, U.K. 1962)
61. The Manchurian Candidate (D: John Frankenheimer, U.S. 1962)
62. 8 1/2 (D: Federico Fellini, Italy 1963)
63. Band of Outsiders (D: Jean-Luc Godard, France 1964)
64. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (D: Stanley Kubrick, U.S. 1964)
65. The Battle of Algiers (D: Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria 1965)
66. The Saragossa Manuscript (D: Wojciech Has, Poland 1965)
67. Au Hasard Balthazar (D: Robert Bresson, France 1966)
68. Blowup (D: Michelangelo Antonioni, U.K. 1966)
69. Persona (D: Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966)
70. Bonnie and Clyde (D: Arthur Penn, U.S. 1967)
71. Playtime (D: Jacques Tati, France 1967)
72. The Graduate (D: Mike Nichols, U.S. 1967)
73. 2001: A Space Odyssey (D: Stanley Kubrick, U.S. 1968)
74. Faces (D: John Cassavetes, U.S. 1968)
75. If... (D: Lindsay Anderson, U.K. 1968)
76. Medium Cool (D: Haskell Wexler, U.S. 1969)
77. The Wild Bunch (D: Sam Peckinpah, U.S. 1969)
78. Patton (D: Franklin J. Schaffner, U.S. 1970)
79. A Clockwork Orange (D: Stanley Kubrick, U.K. 1971)
80. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (D: Robert Altman, U.S. 1971)
81. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (D: Werner Herzog, Germany 1972)
82. Solaris (D: Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union 1972)
83. The Godfather (D: Francis Ford Coppola, U.S. 1972)
84. Chinatown (D: Roman Polanski, U.S. 1974)
85. Jaws (D: Steven Spielberg, U.S. 1975)
86. Nashville (D: Robert Altman, U.S. 1975)
87. Shampoo (D: Hal Ashby, U.S. 1975)
88. Network (D: Sidney Lumet, U.S. 1976)
89. Annie Hall (D: Woody Allen, U.S. 1977)
90. Raging Bull (D: Martin Scorsese, U.S. 1980)
91. My Dinner with Andre (D: Louis Malle, U.S. 1981)
92. Sans Soleil (D: Chris Marker, France 1983)
93. Brazil (D: Terry Gilliam, U.K. 1985)
94. The Decalogue (D: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland 1988)
95. Wings of Desire (D: Wim Wenders, Germany 1988)
96. Do the Right Thing (D: Spike Lee, U.S. 1989)
97. Goodfellas (D: Martin Scorsese, U.S. 1990)
98. Raise the Red Lantern (D: Zhang Yimou, China 1991)
99. Pulp Fiction (D: Quentin Tarantino, U.S. 1994)
100. Fargo (D: Joel Coen, U.S. 1996)

Cuma, Nisan 07, 2006

Elevator to the Gallows

Elevator to the Gallows (France, 1958) * * *
D: Louis Malle

He has committed the perfect crime--as Hitchcock would say, as when he would lean out of his chair toward Truffaut, excitedly rehearsing a scenario for his young filmmaker friend. Our murderer has thrown a grappling hook and scaled the outer wall of the office building, gone into his boss's office, and shot him through the head. He wears gloves, and the gun belongs to his boss, and he now places that gun in the victim's hand. He closes the door so as to leave it locked from the inside. Now all he needs to do is leave the murder scene without any trace of his presence, so the victim is an apparent suicide, and no one else could have come and gone. But just as he is about to leave the office at the end of the working day--and run off with the boss's wife, who will be waiting for him--he realizes he's left the grappling hook and rope hanging from the balcony. He takes the elevator, but the security guard turns off the power to the building in the evening, and the murderer becomes trapped. Outside, his car is stolen by two young lovers, who themselves will...but that is revealing too much.

I don't know if Hitchcock saw Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, but it's a premise he would have embraced, and perhaps would have filmed, if he'd gotten the rights instead of a 24-year old Frenchman who had never made a feature-length film. Reportedly, the novel was trash--or at least Malle has said--but he cast Jeanne Moreau as the boss's wife and had Miles Davis score the film. Some call this the first French New Wave film; it predates The 400 Blows and Breathless, but it's not as flashy or as stylish as Truffaut and Godard's films. It's in the tradition of Jules Dassin's Rififi--it's French Film Noir. But a curious thing happens. After the first fifteen minutes or so, and our murderer suddenly becomes trapped in the elevator, the film noir hits a wall and becomes a parody. His car is stolen by two lovers; the boy takes his name, occupation, and history (a soldier), the girl pretends to be his wife, and after rear-ending the car of some vacationing German tourists, they party with them. And while all this is happening, Jeanne Moreau, in a part which hardly puts her acting to the test, wanders the streets turning down the advances of other men and speaking in a voice-over, rapturously declaring her immortal love for the murderer, even though he has apparently run off with another woman (for she saw the young girl hanging out the passenger window of his car). She struts with her permanent Moreau frown--she was the Bardot for the New Wave, until Godard just went out and hired Bardot for Contempt; she's much more complex in, say, Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, but it doesn't matter. This is her debut on the international scene. She's a movie star because Malle films her in complete awe. She has nothing to do at all, however, until the final scene, which is so very French that when FIN flies up to the screen it's earned.

Despite being trapped in that elevator, eventually there's more murder, and more complications, and a tidy, satisfying ending. Perhaps it's New Wave on a technicality, but I think ultimately its heart is in noir. The jazz plays on the soundtrack, but apart from a brief improvisation, the film hasn't become the jazz, which is what happened when Godard first played the notes. No, Malle's interest was in character and fate and story, not style. He'd be more natural in the coming decades. For now, this is a very impressive first film, and a clever one at that.

We watched this at the Orpheum in Madison on a Friday night, with a buzzing of customers eating dinner in the cafe outside the theater doors, and a man rustling in his jacket and laughing heartily at the film's ironies while everyone else sat in too-respectful silence. The lobby by the ticket-stand had a peculiar smell that I could only identify as the comic book store in Milwaukee that I used to reverently visit when I was a kid to pick up Conan comics with scandalous covers. The whole experience was bathed in this kind of warm, displaced nostalgia, even though the print wasn't framed properly, and many foreheads were cut off, like victims of the gallows in the poster's logo.

Pazar, Nisan 02, 2006

2006 Wisconsin Film Festival, Day 4

The Death of Mister Lazarescu (Romania, 2005) * * * *
D: Cristi Pulu

So here you have the ending of the film--and the point of it--right there in the title. That must betray more than a few cardinal rules. But announcing its intention right off the bat subtly alters how the viewer watches the film. As Mister Lazarescu--an abandoned intellectual living in a dirty apartment with three cats, and addicted to alcohol--is taken on a long nighttime journey in an effort to find a hospital with the time and staff to perform a surgery to save his life, the audience knows that effort will be in vain, and becomes especially attuned to the very gradual decline in poor Mister Lazarescu's syntax, senses, and control of his body. The audience knows he is being prepared for death. He's accompanied on this journey by an ambulance driver and a nurse, who initially only has a mild concern for her patient, but as she comes to gatekeeper after gatekeeper who refuses to allow her patient admittance, she--and, by extension, the prone Mister Lazarescu--become sympathetic victims of a Kafkaesque lealth care system. This isn't just the Castle and the Trial rolled into one; it also announces its allusions to Dante in its heartbreaking conclusion. Over two-and-a-half hours in length, it almost seems to unfold in real-time, particularly in its first act, as Mister Lazarescu patiently waits for an ambulance which his neighbors insist will never arrive. The documentary feel draws you in, until you no longer become aware of watching a film, but actually feel present in the sterile hospital rooms and halls, watching in horror as the staff treats Lazarescu and his nurse with petty indifference. This is a remarkable film. I'm not sure how much of the audience was aware, though. When it abruptly ended, many members of the audience derisively laughed. This is why I want to kill the snark! Sometimes a film is better than its audience. Some of us, at least, remained stunned in our seats until the ending credits ceased. Maybe the laughter wasn't derisive but defensive; this isn't just a satire, it's a horror film: it's a film that tells you that however you lived, you won't die necessarily die in dignity.

My Dad is 100 Years Old (Canada, 2005) * * *
D: Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin directed Archangel, Careful, The Saddest Music in the World, and Cowards Bend the Knee--all films that used the techniques of German expressionism (with a great deal of Vaseline smeared on the lens) to create the sensation of watching lost films from the era of the earliest talkies. On Saddest Music he worked with Isabella Rossellini, and she loved the director so much that she asked him to direct this short film which she wrote in tribute to her father, the Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Her earliest memory of her father is of his round, almost pregnant belly, so here he's only played by a giant belly, defending his crude film techniques against characters such as David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Federico Fellini, all played by Isabella. (She also plays Charlie Chaplin and her mother, Ingrid Bergman, to whom she already bears a striking resemblance.) The film's weakness is also its strength--it's an essayistic love letter to her father, and sometimes read directly to the camera. But it's also tender because of its directness. The great irony is that for much of the film Roberto Rossellini defends his documentary-approach to filmmaking against the great film stylists; all this, of course, is being directed by one of today's great stylists, Guy Maddin.

Film Portrait (U.S., 1972) * * 1/2
D: Jerome Hill

Jerome Hill died shortly after the completion of this autobiographical film, which, while offering a rough biography of his life (and his childhood in particular), offers his reflections upon the birth of cinema and its potential as the last great art form. Hill was apparently best known as a philanthropist, but with this film he wants to recreate his identity as an artist and innovator. He made only about a half-dozen films, and two are shown in their entirety in Film Portrait. La Cartomancienne, from 1932, still impresses, and would compare favorably in a collection of late 20's/early 30's avant-garde films. But what makes Film Portrait as a whole interesting is the emphasis Hill places on the need for creativity and experimentation in filmmaking. He runs film backward to create trick effects (Georges Melies is name-checked as a fundamental inspiration), and, more strikingly, paints directly onto the frames of the film to create brightly-colored animated images that dance around the live action, such as a stick-figure horse pulling at a (real, stop-motion) toy carriage, or halos of paint that frame and embrace old friends that he adores. Its flaw is that it's a bit too long and lingering, while leaving great gaps in his biography that might leave you seeking out other sources.

So that was the film festival. I decided The Death of Mister Lazarescu was the best I'd seen; Anne chose the Maddin short, followed closely by The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. If I could have changed one thing--I would have loved to substitute Isolation for something else, perhaps Innocence, but there could be no perfect schedule in such a cramped weekend. WIFF still has too much to fix. Though they've added more venues and a few more screenings this year, they need to stretch the festival over the week, and show each film more than once. It would hurt no one, and everyone could see more films. I wish I'd had the chance to see much more--like Hamilton or Darwin's Nightmare or Triviatown. Still, it's hard to complain, and I'm already exhausted from the lack of sleep; it's not an awful thing, to live in Madison.

2006 Wisconsin Film Festival, Day 3

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (U.K., 2005) * * *
D: The Brothers Quay

The second live-action film from the Brothers Quay, best known for their innovative and dark stop-motion animation shorts, strives for the logic of a fever-dream. At the outset, the mysterious Dr. Droz kidnaps an opera singer, Malvina, away from her lover and takes her to a rocky island, where he steals her voice. The plot proper begins when a piano tuner, Felisberto, is brought to the island--not to tune pianos, as he'd thought, but to repair the strange mechanical "automatons" that Dr. Droz has built, to be used, in some unspecified way, for an opera recreating the abduction of Malvina. Felisberto takes each automaton (actually intricate stop-motion animations) as a challenge, and struggles to decipher them and put their purpose into motion. He also becomes seduced by both Dr. Droz's kept woman, Assumpta (the Spanish actress and author Assumpta Serna), and Malvina herself, hiding behind a veil and staring out at the ocean from the beach. If you've seen Guy Maddin's "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" you'll get a good sense of the style and tone of this film (and it should be no surprise that Maddin loves this film). It's a fairy tale filled with evocative (and sometimes blatant) erotic imagery. The characters frequently dream, but their dreams are only slightly more bizarre than waking life. The film is very, very slow, but there's so much to look at--and it's all so gorgeous--that you can't really complain. Terry Gilliam is listed as one of the executive producers. Zeitgeist, which has distributed many of Maddin's films, plans a larger theatrical release this year, followed by a DVD. I'd certainly like to see it again, as I think I might be underestimating it.

The Wendell Baker Story (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson

This is the new comedy from the Wilson brothers--and by "Wilson brothers," I mean all of them: Luke, Owen, and Andrew, who co-directs with Luke. Without Wes Anderson behind the camera or contributing to the script, the film lacks the extra push it needs to sculpt it into something really unique; although Owen Wilson, who co-wrote Anderon's first three films, reportedly helped polish the script. There's no denying it has hilarious moments. The premise--and it takes forever to get there--is that Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson) is an entrepeneurial Texan who starts his own fake-ID card racket for illegal immigrants. He loses his girlfriend and his dog by the time he gets out of prison, and he's given a job at a nursing home run by Owen Wilson and Eddie Griffin, who themselves have a racket: ship most of the elderly patients to slave-labor in Oklahoma while selling their meds on the black market. Wendell Baker tries to foil their scheme and win back his girlfriend and dog. Apparently this film's been around for at least a year; IMDB lists it in Owen Wilson's credits before Wedding Crashers, and a reviewer at that site apparently saw it exactly one year ago at another film festival. It's strange that it never saw a big release. It's no lost masterpiece, but it's better than most middlebrow comedies; the jokes are just a bit more clever. Will Ferrell cameos (no surprise there), but it's a very funny cameo that's not only clever but actually integrated into the plot. It's also nice to see Seymour Cassell (from the Wes Anderson company of players), Harry Dean Stanton, and Kris Kristofferson in significant roles as the patients, and the sweet-natured conclusion, though far-fetched as hell, leaves a pleasant taste. When people finally discover it on DVD, it will gain a mild following, which is what it deserves.

Wild Country (U.K., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Craig Strachan

I gave Isolation, Thursday night's midnight Irish horror movie, two stars, and I'm giving this, Friday night's midnight Scottish horror movie, two-and-half. But the gap in my mind is tremendous. I much prefer Wild Country. Isolation, though a little more slick and stylish, had a satirical, timely premise (mad cow disease reworked as a viral infestation that creates killer cow fetuses) that it squandered by delivering its cliched shocks and dialogue with a straight face. The characters were terribly unappealing, too. Wild Country is more lowbrow (and this is the one that doesn't begin with a woman plunging her hand up a cow's nethers), and seemingly lower-budgeted. But it's fun, and that makes all the difference for a horror film that's not going to be the next Rosemary's Baby or the Exorcist. Actually, this is a throwback to early 80's rubber-monster werewolf films, in particular the John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London. If you stretched that film's first act over 75 minutes, that's what you get here. Scottish teens in a church youth group go on a camping trip in the highlands, and overnight are picked off by a giant wolf that stalks them from the shadows. The creature effects are only occasionally enhanced by CG, as though they had about $12 left over for digital effects. The gore effects are great and sloppy, with arterial gushes, but the werewolf--the more you see of it--is painfully inadequate. That's okay. It makes all the difference that unlike Isolation, you can actually enjoy the characters here, in particular the lead, a young actress named Samantha Shields whose character gives up her baby for adoption in the opening scenes, and comes to develop a fierce attachment to the baby she steals from a corpse in a Scottish castle in the wild. As her friends are killed off, she begins to breastfeed the child and regret giving up her own. It's a nice touch to what's otherwise a get-drunk-and-cheer-the-gore kind of film. And the ending redeems much of its flaws. I would recommend a viewing for monster movie fans.

Cumartesi, Nisan 01, 2006

2006 Wisconsin Film Festival, Days 1 & 2

Day One!

The President's Last Bang (South Korea, 2005) * * *
D: Im Sang-Soo

The 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival began at 7pm on the last Thursday of March. We were in a very not-sold-out showing of The President's Last Bang, at the University Theater, a beer-and-cheese-curds dive on campus that will be closing sometime in the next couple of months. It might be because of, as the woman behind me put it, "That smell of beef." Im Sang-Soo's film is a fictionalized retelling of the assassination of South Korean president General Park Chung-hee in 1979. The entire film takes place in one day, as the president's handlers, security team, and various officials prepare for a night that promises to be something of an orgy, as two beautiful women--a college student and a TV personality--are brought to a secluded home to have dinner with the womanizing president and his closest advisors. Instead, in one of the many satirical moments, the men merely swoon drunkenly while one girl plays guitar and sings love songs while the hours pass. Meanwhile, Kim, chief of the secret service, gets absorbed into an assassination plot hatched on the fly by the head of the KCIA (and who, through the course of the film, begins to lose his mind in a manner reminiscent of the "precious bodily fluids" scenes in Dr. Strangelove). It's not a comedy, but a black satire--not as broad as Kubrick's film but sprinkled with lots of wit. It's also very violent. In the film's strongest scene, the camera moves from room to room in the house after the slaughter, taking a God's-eye view of body after body sitting in pools of blood, while Kim stalks the halls, somewhat stunned at the evening's work. Anne thought the film was too comic to the point of silliness; I strongly disagree: there's an overwhelmng aura of sadness in this film, which has a valid concern about the fragility of a government in which its chief officers will follow any order. The film has flaws: there's virtually no plot structure, and no one to truly care about (not even Kim, who is distinctly unlikable), but the film is sharp: in one scene, an official has to quickly page through the country's constitution to determine who's presently in charge.

Isolation (U.K., 2005) * *
D: Billy O'Brien

Our last film of the festival's first day was a midnight movie at the grand ole Orpheum Theatre. Part of the supposed rennaissance in horror films from the U.K., it's got a great premise and a terribly cliched execution. On a remote Irish farm, a rancher, a vet, a scientist, and a young couple on the run face off against killer cow fetuses with teeth! Actually, the premise is promising: to increase production, the livestock are injected with an experimental drug. Instead, the cows give birth to calves that quickly give birth to more calves. And they're nasty things--one bites the vet while it's still in the womb (I don't want to get into the details of how). What could have been a great parody of mad cow anxieties--and that's absolutely what this is intended to be--instead becomes a largely humorless, completely unsurprising walk through all the old "The Thing" and "Alien" tropes that you can see on every Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week. Although the film is good to look at, and the cast is above average (including the beautiful Ruth Negga from Breakfast on Pluto), the script could have used more satirical punch and less mundane genre-plotting. What a waste. At any rate, the audience had a good time, though they were more frequently laughing at the film than with it.

Day Two

Laura (U.S., 1944) * * * *
D: Otto Preminger

This is the fourth time I've seen Laura, but we went because Roger Ebert was there to present it, along with Madison film professor and author David Bordwell. The reason the screening was held in the smallest theater in Madison (the UW Cinematheque) is that it was an original print from 20th Century Fox, and thus needed to use the two-projector system for switching between reels (almost all theaters now use a single projector for reel changing). What's there to say? It's one of the greatest Hollywood mysteries ever made. Gene Tierney is the title character, killed by a shotgun blast to the face(!), Dana Andrews is the detective who infuriates the witnesses by distractedly playing with a ball-and-socket toy while interrogating them, Vincent Price is the romantic womanizer (he hadn't been typecast yet as a villain), and Clifton Webb is the effete gossip columnist who turns Laura into a powerful socialite before losing her to more manly men. With one of the best twists in any mystery film, ever.
In the post-screening discussion much was made of whether or not Laura is truly film noir (it's borderline, at best). But I think film noir isn't just style and lighting, but a pessimistic content. This is a very pessimistic film. The killer can only possess Laura through death, and detective Andrews find himself falling in love with the image and relics of a woman who is dead. In true film noir, true resolution can only come in failure or death--see the terrific ending of Kiss of Death, which I recently watched for the first time.
I only had about five seconds to say something to Roger Ebert, so I recommended he use Michael Haneke's thriller Cache for his annual shot-by-shot film analysis class. It's a film that really needs that kind of dissection.

Before We Begin (Also, the Best Films of 2005)

I'm worse than a college dropout--I have a Master's degree in Creative Writing. I'm writing a novel that doesn't really have a title yet, although I'm tossing around "The Evercoil," "All the Stars in Arubis," or "The Yellow-Breasted Apalis Whispers the Secret of Contentment." It's a novel in which characters tell each other stories, and within those stories are other stories, a la Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, or (especially) Jan Potocki's brilliant The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I'm writing it because I'm interested in pure storytelling--the simplicity of a setup, a complication, and a conclusion, repeated as a chain to eternity. Everyone engages in this. If you go to the grocery store and something interesting happens on the way--no matter how mundane--when you get home you relate the story in a very particular form. Your mind is shaping the events into a conventional story. You present the premise, give the complication, and conclude it. You don't vary from this, because to tell the story any other way would be incoherency, and our minds are specially fashioned to receive stories, just as they're fashioned to tell them. In this novel I'm trying to tell as many different kinds of stories as I can. Shakespearean romances, horror in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, sea-stories like Melville, magical stories like the adventures of Haroun al-Rashid in the Arabian Nights, creation myths, animal trickster stories, African folklore. If that sounds ambitious--well, progress is slow, but it's a lot of fun to write. If nothing else happens to it, it's a great exercise.

A couple of years ago I decided I like films too much to know so little about them, so, not having seen anything by Fellini, Godard, or Chaplin, I set off on something I called "Primer," because it was a self-taught film class, and watched a hundred films, writing an essay on each. Since then, I've watched about 370 more that I would consider part of a film education (although I stopped writing essays, because it was forcing me to become too picky in what I selected). Becoming a film buff really is diving down a rabbit-hole; you have some slight regret for losing all that time to endlessly watching movies, but on the other hand you realize there's so much more yet to watch that you can't wait to watch. Most of my favorite films I've just found in the last couple of years--"Au Hasard Balthazar," "Le Notte Bianche," "A Matter of Life and Death," "Paris, Texas," "Orpheus," "The Seventh Victim," and so on. It's hard to cut down when you think that movie you just taped off Turner Classic might be your next favorite film.

But my interests and obsessions are very oddly scattered. I collect Conan comic books, for example--not just nostalgia for my childhood, but the new ones by Dark Horse are really good. I've always had this problem; I have a hard time justifying one pursuit to another. I have other geeky interests--"The Prisoner" (for which I wrote a novella that was published by a fanclub, about ten years ago--it's for sale online, somewhere), "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and "Mr. Show" and "NewsRadio." I do collect antique Arabian Nights books (Orientalism was in fashion for about a century, so if it's from 1920 and has Aladdin on the cover, I want it). And I'm really into Elephant 6 music, which happened as follows:

I moved to Seattle in 1999 to attend grad school at the University of Washington. While there, I worked in a Barnes & Noble receiving department, taking boxes of books off trucks and scanning them into the inventory while listening to lots of music that we shared with each other. Before moving to Seattle, my musical tastes were rather bland; apart from the Beatles and some psychedelic rock from the 60's (which I still love), I liked Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos, and Lilith Fair stuff. I desperately needed new music. It happened very strangely but quickly. First I played a CMJ compilation over and over because of one song, "Strawberryfire" by the Apples in Stereo (I think Beulah's "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" was on there, too). My friend Chuck had me listen to this new CD called Black Foliage, and I thought it was amazing--I couldn't believe a band was making music like that in 1999; at the time it reminded me of early Pink Floyd with a bit of the Beatles mixed in. Then I was driving down I-5 while listening to college radio, and they played this really creative, envigorating, kaleidoscopic music that somehow retained a very raw feel. The DJ said it was "The King of Carrot-Flowers Parts One, Two, and Three" by Neutral Milk Hotel. Repeating this bizarre phrase over and over--it's really just a random assemblage of words, each having nothing to do with the other--I somehow made it to the nearest CD store and found two albums by Neutral Milk Hotel; the clerk helped me figure out which was the most recent, and when I brought it home it was weirdly nourishing to be able to hear that music again. Only belatedly did I find out that the three bands in which I was most interested were all part of the same musical collective, Elephant 6, and so I became a diehard fan of the Apples, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and all the other bands that surrounded them. Now I run a blog devoted to them called Optical Atlas, and it's thrilling to be able to interview many members of the bands and to help share their music with others.

I have a wife, Anne, who's a research scientist at the University of Madison, and a dog, who's a Westie, and who thinks she's human (it kind of freaks people out).

This blog is devoted to reducing the contaminating levels of snarkiness in blogculture. But I admit I'm sometimes guilty of that too. It's an inner battle.

The Best Films of 2005. They aren't snarky. And you should see them:

1) 2046
2) Good Night, and Good Luck.
3) Cache
4) Saraband
5) The New World
6) Munich
7) Brokeback Mountain
8) Match Point
9) Capote
10) Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
11) Me and You and Everyone We Know
12) Nobody Knows
13) The White Diamond
14) Paradise Now
15) The Constant Gardener
16) King Kong
17) Broken Flowers
18) Oliver Twist
19) Howl’s Moving Castle
20) Grizzly Man

Kill the Snark

I want a less cynical pop culture. I want people to watch black and white movies, and take them on their own terms. I want people to regain their ability to be moved. I want people to appreciate storytelling. I want people to appreciate stillness. I want to kill the snark.