Pazartesi, Mayıs 21, 2007

Alejandro Jodorowsky Will Melt Your Brain

I first encountered the 1970 Mexican film El Topo the same way a lot of people did who were too young to catch the film in its theater run; I encountered it in the library, or publicity stills of it anyway, as excerpted in the book Midnight Movies. This black-and-white cult film survey called El Topo the "first midnight movie," and so now we all say that it was, besting Rocky Horror by a few years. The images from that book stick in my mind so strongly that when I watch El Topo now, I still find myself disconcerted to see them moving. And with what life and energy! The legless man perched on the back of the armless man, staring forward resolutely as a single unit...the diapered tyrant writhing on the floor in his beehive-shaped fort...the nude hippy girl with the boyish physique holding a black umbrella while she wades in a desert oasis...and that umbrella hanging over the head of the black-clad master gunfighter, who rides on a horse through the desert with his naked son, leaving behind a framed picture of the boy's mother, half-buried in the sand. This last image has become so famous that it's now as synonymous with surrealist cinema as Dali and Bunuel slitting open an eye. Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky was not a Surrealist, capital "S"--that movement lasted for barely a heartbeat before its originators began to disown the label for all its limitations--but certainly he is a master of creating images that are spectacular, arresting, or mesmerizing simply because they exist, because he somehow managed to corral the resources to produce them. Perhaps for this very reason, he has not made very many films, and in recent decades has turned his attention to comic books, where he can let his imagination go unfettered, free of movie producers, special effects budgets, reserve and reason.

As I've mentioned in this blog before, when I was living in Seattle in 1998-2000 I serendipitously found myself in an apartment within a few blocks of the greatest video store on the planet, Scarecrow Video. The jewel in their near-comprehensive collection of cinema--at the time, anyway--were two imported Japanese VHS tapes, one of El Topo, the other of Jodorowsky's follow-up, The Holy Mountain (1973). The film was, in many ways, exactly what I expected, but that's something remarkable, because in the intervening years between first seeing those simple black-and-white stills in the Midnight Movies book and watching this tape, my imagination had naturally run rampant. When I saw those pictures I was both repelled and fascinated, and the film had the same effect. But best of all, it was intent on transporting me to another world, a purely allegorical landscape and a realm of extreme violence and ritualistic magic. It's a dream-realm, visited successfully by only a few directors; and in this case one can imagine the characters of Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel (Simon of the Desert in particular) inhabit it. Base impulses--lust, hatred, and jealousy--are intense enough, in the deserts of El Topo and the climes of The Holy Mountain, to actually shape the landscape and summon shamans and demons. His are films of magical realism, but he has lived in enough countries, and speaks enough languages, that they are also confoundingly international films. El Topo's horrendous English-dubbed soundtrack has, in the decades before this final, official release in its original language this spring, been so widely experienced that it has almost supplanted itself as the official version. The Holy Mountain was shot in English, but sounds just as dubbed, and convinced me before its new release on DVD that it was another completely Mexican production. As Jodorowsky explains on the newly-recorded audio commentary, Holy Mountain had no country, which spoiled its chances of a prize from Cannes. But anyone who tries to categorize the films of Jodorowsky will find themselves frustrated.
El Topo, for example, may seem like a spaghetti Western at first glance, as its merciless, Eastwood-like gunfighter, soullessly clad in black despite the fact that he rides through a bleak desert, duels with some bandits, breaks up a gang, and liberates a monastery. But it quickly takes on the sublime poetics of a Zen folktale. The woman he frees from a despot in the desert tells him about four mystic Masters with whom he must duel and defeat to prove his supremacy. Each unique Master he swiftly hunts down--one is impervious to bullets; one has a lion and a wife who caws like a bird; one is surrounded by a pen of rabbits; one can deflect bullets with a net. He defeats each one, only to be betrayed by the woman who brought him here and the mysterious, black-clad succubus who accompanies them. He's killed and resurrected--deep in a mountain, tended by exiled victims of disease and deformity who hope that he will be the one who leads them to the light (he is a mole, "el topo," who, though blind, digs tenaciously toward the surface). In this, the second half of the story, the gunfighter journeys to a corrupt city and becomes a beggar, accompanied by the woman who loves him, a dwarf from the mountains. Together they struggle to liberate their subterranean colony while being mistreated by the vain and cruel townspeople.

El Topo made Jodorowsky's reputation, not least because he's credited as director, writer, actor (he plays the lead), and music composer (the soundtrack was released on the Beatles' Apple Records). Those who saw the film envisioned him to be a Zen superman, a pillar of wisdom, and they watched the film religiously, picking apart the arcane symbols as though it were a psychedelic Bible. But Jodorowsky was already middle-aged, having spent years in Europe writing mime performances for friend Marcel Marceau and directing plays as part of the Panic Movement, a confrontational street theater, founded with Fernando Arrabal (Viva La Muerte) and Roland Topor (the cartoonist and author), designed to shock the audience out of stupor. He was an unlikely Messiah, but he took the role seriously, giving interviews in which he proudly proclaimed that the miraculous rocks from which El Topo's women drink were piled to form a perfect replica of his phallus...etc., etc. He made it easier for critics to dismiss him as pretentious, but to dismiss El Topo is to overlook those virtues which make it so valuable.

It might take a few viewings to see the merits of any of Jodorowsky's films, but the merits do float to the surface once the film settles in your consciousness. On the other hand, you need only see El Topo once--say, ideally, in 1970 during its original midnight-movie run in New York, when Everyone who was Anyone had to attend--and the film's images will so stain your retinas that they'll follow you for the rest of your life, for better or worse. He's an original, but more than that, he almost seems to be tapped into the Jungian collective unconscious. It doesn't matter that his films are flawed (and they are). They still fire parts of your brain which are usually dormant during your waking hours, and that can't be underestimated. So yes, El Topo is often hippy-dippy naive (and chauvenist--a trait which fades in his later works). But it contains enough savagery and cynicism to compensate for that. He's an artist working straight from his dreams. He's subverting his own critical faculties to bring you these images and ideas, his stream-of-consciousness steered only by an innate storytelling skill.

The storytelling is much more distinct in El Topo than in his preceding film, Fando y Lis, but that may have much to do with the fact that he's adapting another's material. Fando y Lis is a play by Arrabal, and Jodorowsky directed it, he says, without a script and from memory, though one can imagine that the result is something with which Arrabal was pleased. (I watched the riddle-like interview with Arrabal on the Viva La Muerte DVD, and I really couldn't tell.) Enacted in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland akin to the one in El Topo--with jagged rocks and forbidding, shadowy hills replacing El Topo's vast desert--it's an avant-garde film in the Panic mold, a film to enrage rather than to be enjoyed. Since most of the modern-day, film-savvy viewers will not be enraged, it acts more as a curiosity piece, a stunt in the mold of John Waters which has an ending more haunting and moving than it really ought to be--a testament to Jodorowsky's budding skill as a filmmaker. The "story" follows childish lovers Fando--Arrabal's surrogate--and Lis, who is paralyzed and pulled by Fando in a wagon as they journey toward the mythical city of Tar, a paradise which probably doesn't exist. Along the way they meet various corrupt temptations, Pilgrim's Progress-style, including a pack of transvestites and some lecherous old men. It should have been a short film, but it does attain a certain power by its conclusion, however inevitable and predictible the actual results are. Supposedly the film caused a riot at the Acapulco Film Festival where it premiered in 1968, and Jodorowsky barely escaped from the screening alive. Well, it was that kind of year.

El Topo expands upon the themes of Fando y Lis but Jodorowsky also refines his skill and heightens the art. His third film, The Holy Mountain, was considered a flop upon its release, but only because nobody really had a chance to see it. With the new DVD box set The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky finally bringing his filmography to a wider audience, it seems that Holy Mountain's reputation is being restored to the point where many critics are now discussing it as the superior film. To be sure, it's the wildest, and the most pure expression of his imagination on film (and thus, even closer to his comics). While it once again blurs genres, it is ostensibly a science fiction piece, set in a world (perhaps the near future) of mass poverty and prostitution and ruled by a corrupt and hypocritical papacy. The symbols and coded imagery come fast and furious from the onset of the film. Here, for example, is the opening: during the credits, we see a black-clad Master (Jodorowsky again), wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a cloak, who is kneeling between two blonde female disciples in some kind of sacred chamber. He strips the women, removes their false fingernails, shaves their heads and pushes them together so that all three form the shape of a mountain: essentially they are foreshadowing the procession of events in the story, as we will see our characters rid themselves of material possessions, achieve a spiritual nakedness, and ascend the mountain to find their transcendence. But then the images come more quickly: models of the cosmos and unblinking eyes, one door opening with another revealing a key, mummified bodies, God knows what else. We see a thief lying in his own urine in the dirt, his face covered in flies. A tarot card lying nearby identifies him as the Fool. A cougar beside him roars. We see another tarot card strapped to the back of a legless and armless man who energetically hobbles through the street toward the Fool, and so on, almost unrelentingly for two full hours! But the narrative is pretty straightforward: this Fool, identified in the film as the Thief, climbs a Tower (like the tower of the Tarot), and within it encounters Jodorowsky's Zen master, who teaches him that he needn't seek gold, because we all have gold within us (he demonstrates this by alchemically converting the man's sweat, urine, and feces into an unattractive lump of gold). Then he--and the tattooed woman who accompanies him--lead the Thief into a chamber with the effigies of various men and women from different planets. Each tells of his world, and it's here, just as the narrative is getting bogged down, that the film takes off, with brilliant bits of satire, astonishing set design, and gleefully Bunuellian blasphemy. Finally, when our cast is introduced, all of the "thieves"--nine for the nine planets--join a mission to climb a holy mountain, at the zenith of which they will find some kind of ultimate meaning or transcendent insight. But even this becomes not quite what we expect, as Jodorowsky breaks the fourth wall, directly addresses the viewer, and demonstrates that all earthly pursuits are "maya," illusion. The imagery in Holy Mountain can be the stuff of nightmares, but only in one scene is it actually intended to be--when each of the pilgrims face their darkest fear. For the rest of the film, the extreme images are strangely defused by Jodorowsky's matter-of-fact handling of the material. Corpses mechanized to provide sex shows, a giant phallic ice sculpture assaulted at a banquet by lustful upperclass women, a room full of severed testicles preserved in jars--Jodorowsky observes these peculiar sights like a bemused documentarian. In this way, not much seems "shocking." Blood, bodies, sex, and mud are all part of the same continuum. His excitement for his own ideas translates to the screen, and his best scenes pick up on this electric energy with a pulsating rhythm to the editing: the aforementioned scene of the legless man hobbling quickly through the street; a reenactment of Spain's conquering of Mexico with frogs meticulously disguised as Aztecs and iguanas playing conquistadors; a montage of religious-themed weaponry set to a guitar-rock soundtrack; the demonstration of an immense robot vagina which must be stimulated by penetrating it with a giant, awkwardly-wielded rod--which ends with a perfectly edited gag.

Another moment is in Santa Sangre (1989), Jodorowsky's return to filmmaking after a long absence: a sudden cut to a bird sailing over a city while throbbing salsa music plays; or, even better, a group with Down's syndrome being led by a drug dealer in a dance down a street of prostitutes--the closest, perhaps, that Jodorowsky has ever come to filming a musical. When I saw him introducing a double-feature of Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre in Toronto a few years ago, he seemed embarrassed by the exhausting symbology of the former, and introduced Santa Sangre as his personal favorite. Truly, it represents an evolution in his storytelling, which you can chart more gradually by reading his French comics and (I assume) novels and essays. If El Topo riffed on the Western genre, and Holy Mountain on science fiction, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky's take on horror; it's produced by Claudio Argento, who likely insisted upon a lot of gore and creative murders, but it reveals itself slowly as an extension of the director's psychology-driven philosophies. Fenix (Axel Jodorowsky, one of the director's sons), imprisoned in a mental institution, recalls his past: the little mute girl he loved; his father, who scarred his chest in the shape of an eagle as a rite of passage; the traumatic moment when he witnessed his mother's arms being cut from her body by her sadistic, philandering husband. He now serves his mother, worships her, even acts as her arms so that she can play the piano again and preen before a mirror; but he has lost his own identity in the process, and is driven to murder by her jealous whims. It's a little bit like Hitchcock's Psycho (as Jodorowsky proudly admits), but the whole mix is something you've never seen before, as original as the elephant funeral scene which occurs early in the film, and about which Roger Ebert has written so eloquently. (Ebert is one of the film's most vocal admirers.) If Holy Mountain was, as Jodorowsky explains on his commentary track, a film made to change the world, Santa Sangre is a film made to change the individual--a plea to free oneself from the grip of one's parents and to forge a new identity.

He made two other films--Tusk (1980), a film that's almost impossible to see now, and The Rainbow Thief (1990), which Jodorowsky filmed as a favor for a friend--but he has disowned both. I'll withhold judgment until I've seen them. But I maintain that the best work Jodorowsky has done is not on film but in the medium of comics. After an aborted attempt in the late 70's to film an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, Jodorowsky decided instead to create a science fiction comic book with one of that film's art designers, Jean Giraud, aka Moebius (creator of the Western comic book Blueberry). Moebius is generally considered one of the greatest living illustrators in comics, and The Incal is regarded--particularly in Europe, where it is better known--as a masterpiece of the form. Once again influenced by the Tarot (Jodorowsky has the largest Tarot collection in the world, and is considered an authority on the subject), the four-part epic is built around four consecutive movements--up, down, left, and right--as its bizarre, semi-comical cast, led by John DiFool (an everyman standing in for the "Fool" of the Tarot), explore a vertical metropolis built into a chasm in a planet and ruled by a tyrannical hermaphrodite and his/her "technopriests"--and then journey to the edges of the cosmos. Unlike most of Jodorowsky's comic book work, this has been intermittently made available in English, first in four lavish volumes published by the Marvel imprint Epic, and more recently from the (sadly, now-defunct) Humanoids Publishing.
Humanoids, for a time, vitally reprinted many significant Jodorowsky tales: Son of the Gun, an El Topo-like gangster saga in which a killer, born with a tail but also a talent for sharpshooting, finds himself on an unexpected journey to sainthood after his life of crime self-destructs in a most Oedipal fashion, The White Lama, an excellent Tibetan adventure into Buddhist myth with magical transformation and even a yeti, and--set in the world of L'Incal--The Technopriests and The Metabarons. The latter is particularly noteworthy, the story of a clan of intergalactic male uber-warriors: to bear the title of "Metabaron," the son must lose a limb or appendage at an early age, replacing it with something cryogenic, then train himself in combat until he reaches young adulthood, when he must defeat his father in battle. Each son must follow this pattern for the simple reason that it's the life that his father led, and each successive generation attempts to break the chain, but is drawn inexorably back toward it. In this way, The Metabarons echoes Santa Sangre, and Jodorowsky's own ideas that the most important battle is to escape the shadow of one's family.
While most of his comics are serials that stretch over multiple volumes, they all have a beginning, middle, and end, and are not the self-perpetuating arcs of most comics. Every story he tells has a point. But some of his strongest tales are in a shorter format, such as those which have periodically appeared in the anthology Metal Hurlant. In one story, "Tears of Gold," a child is given the titular tears, and his family becomes so dependent upon the income granted by his tears that they struggle to keep him in a perpetual state of misery and grief. It's a brilliant satire in the form of a fable. Though he's worked with many artists over the decades, Jodorowsky collaborated with Moebius time and time again, most notably on Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (out of print here, but available for a while from Dark Horse Comics), an erotic satire in which a stuffy professor (a stand-in for Jodorowsky himself) abandons his inhibitions and follows his lust for a young student, only to find himself, ultimately, caught in the middle of a guerilla war! A far cry from the chauvenism of El Topo, Madwoman finds Jodorowsky willing to poke fun at the idea of machismo and casually subverts the expectations of the erotica narrative.

Perhaps this was in answer to producer Allen Klein's ill-conceived demand that Jodorowsky film an adaptation of the S&M erotica classic The Story of O, which led to much animosity and a decades-long fight which kept El Topo and The Holy Mountain unavailable in North America (which, in turn, only increased the reputation and notoriety of the films, and thus demand). This fight always seemed out of character for Jodorowsky, who, as he aged, seemed to actually become the saintly Zen master that he pretended to be in his films. He conducted classes in "psycho-magic" and urged his attendants to free themselves of the demons of their past, but at the same time would always reserve most hateful words for Klein (and Klein for Jodorowsky). Thus it was with great relief that those of us in attendance for the Toronto double-feature screening heard him proclaim that he had finally met with Klein again, and all the animosity dissipated the instant they saw each other, after so many years, face to face. They marvelled at their white hair, laughed, and embraced, and the result--this May of 2007--is a long-awaited Region 1 DVD box set entitled The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. It will do much to restore his reputation in the States, with its splendid transfers of El Topo (presented in Spanish, at last) and The Holy Mountain. (The presentation of Fando y Lis is reportedly inferior to the earlier, out-of-print Fantoma disc, but I haven't made the comparison yet.) The box also comes packaged with some invaluable rarities: his short film "La Cravate," which had been thought lost, and now sheds light on his mime work; deleted scenes for Holy Mountain and audio commentary for all three films; and CD soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the latter being released for the first time. Santa Sangre, his finest film, remains only available in Region 2, but that one's a lavish special edition which new fans will find to be worth seeking out.

El Topo and The Holy Mountain continue to astonish. When El Topo played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last month, audiences were shocked and delighted--at once--by the film's audacious ideas and stunning visuals. When it was over, they immediately began to debate whether they had just seen a triumphant work of art or a pretentious mess. His films can still produce a scandal decades later! What I treasure the most about Jodorowsky--and the reason I made a pilgrimage to Toronto to meet him a few years ago--is not his teachings, which pragmatically sort through psychoanalysis and Buddhism to form a kind of secular spirituality, but for his prodigious imagination. For me, Jodorowsky offers not necessarily a penetrating insight into the soul, but a key as to how to let loose the imagination while keeping it guided upon the rails of the intellectual. His stories, in film or in comics, are completely unpredictable, and the only formula or dogma upon which they rely is that everything must change. In a Jodorowsky story, there is no absolute "good" or "evil" character, and if one seems to be one or the other, he or she will undoubtedly switch positions by the story's end. (In this regard, his stories have something in common with those of the anime director Hayao Miyazaki.) So for all of his extreme subject matter and imagery, ultimately his stories are philosophical and optimistic. They are stories of rehabilitation and transformation, in which characters must first look within themselves to root out the corruption or to seek out the pure ideal, and then be born anew. They are stories in which the spirit battles the flesh, and then, unexpectedly, neither conquers, but both are reconciled. They are stories in which every death mirrors or accompanies a birth, for even childbirth is a violent act, and life, at any rate, is a continuum. They are not just stories, but bright sparkling citadels against a desolate horizon of genre and mediocrity. His works are an inspiration--naturally, for they are machines whose designed function is to inspire.

Pazar, Mayıs 20, 2007

Guy Maddin Will Brand Your Brain

In the early days of DVD there was an excellent series of releases called, simply, Short. On a disc called "Dreams," which I'd purchased exclusively to see La Jetee (now forthcoming on Criterion), I first encountered the mysterious hypnagogic tranceworld of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon" (sometimes erroneously credited as "Odilon Redon") was commissioned by the BBC, who asked Maddin to create a film after a piece of art. He chose Odilon Redon's "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity," which he literally represents in the closing image--a swelled eye suspended above a hot-air balloon's basket--but the five minutes leading up to this follow a chugging train snaking through a mysterious, submerged world to a barren polar landscape. It evokes the Hindenburg disaster, King Lear, and Un Chien Andalou, and it is one of Maddin's stranger works, but it quickly became, apart from "La Jetee," the only reason I kept this DVD around. It was an original. Like most of Maddin's films, it seems to have erupted from the earth, a time capsule from ninety years ago, a propaganda film for the Marx Brothers' country of Freedonia, as co-directed by Eisenstein, Riefenstahl, and Bunuel. I say "Eye Like a Strange Balloon" is strange, but today, after seeing Brand Upon the Brain! (and loving it), I've come to look at Maddin's career as wholly logical, almost tragic--but not strange. This short film, which won me over to his work, is almost inaccessible, which is why it's the odd film out in his career. Maddin's films are unique, but they're endearing and far from inaccessible. They make their intentions clear, and it's easy to see why he made them. They are films of passion and repression, libido and self-censorship to the point of mutilation. Across his career, Maddin has battled for his deeply personal cinematic vision, and almost in spite of himself, he's become a successful cult icon, our new David Lynch--an artist that the public demands remain idiosyncratic.

Maddin won a Lifetime Achievement award from the Telluride Film Festival in 1995, despite the fact that his best known and most widely-seen film (to date), The Saddest Music in the World, was still nine years away. Saddest Music created Maddin's reputation and brought him international attention and acclaim, but he had been quietly making films out of his native home of Winnepeg since 1986. His first feature-length film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), was released, along with his '92 masterpiece Careful, by Kino Video in 2000; and it was these two DVDs which first brought Maddin enough exposure that he could become slightly more than a whispered secret amongst Canadian film buffs. Gimli is a dire comedy about disease, bloody operations, and secret lusts. An amateur production with a microscopic budget, the young Maddin nevertheless shows a virtuosic visual style that overcompensates for the limitations of the sets and actors (many of whom share his last name).

Archangel (1990) is less Lynchian, and more recognizable as a descendent of Maddin's purple-prose vision. Referenced on the Decemberists' first album with an extended dialogue cue, it's also my wife's favorite Maddin film, thanks to its hushed poetry, simple surrealism, and charcoal-sketch imagery. Set in a frigid wasteland at the edge of Russia just after the close of World War I, the residents of Archangel remain in the trenches, assuming the battle is still raging--somewhere. Thus prisoners of their own fear and paranoia, the characters enact a peculiar melodrama straight out Kafka, but with a dreamer's stream-of-conciousness logic. There's a treasure map, a disembowling, furtive lustful glances, and recreational biplane flights. Perfect Maddin territory. But like a dream, Archangel has a way of sticking in my mind with just a few key images, while the rest recede as I set my mind to more logical patterns the following morning. It's almost too ephemeral to stick. I admire it greatly, but I'd instead pick Careful as my favorite, though the reason might just be that it's the first full-length Maddin film I ever saw. I remember being put off at first by the post-production dubbing of the characters, but I quickly came to realize just what Maddin was after: for one thing, the dubbing creates a sense of disorientation and unreality that contributes the dreamy feel of his films, but it's also mischievously fetishistic for a 1920's film buff like Maddin, as many of the distinctly flawed films of 1929 were just as awkwardly post-dubbed to cash in on the new sensation of sound. In many of Maddin's films he seems intent on expanding upon this obscure moment of filmic history, when the great heights of the silent film era, epitomized, perhaps, in the films of F.W. Murnau, suddenly plummeted to new lows to accommodate the demands of sound cinema. Almost all of his films are like Fritz Lang masterpieces fiddled with by a frantic studio, and unable to arrive at anything but more accidental poetry. Maddin's films are deliberately flawed, just as he smears vasoline at the edges of his lens and cuts his films as to give the impression that the film is about to melt or split apart. He knows that this ancient, fragile milieu mirrors the landscape of the subconscious, as volatile as the rotting pieces of silent film saved in Bill Morrison's compilation Decasia (2002).

Careful now almost seems like the dry-run for all the themes and obsessions that would drive his next decade-plus of filmmaking, though it hasn't aged a day (the benefit of filming in the style that he's chosen). The film is mostly tinted in singular colors, apart from certain scenes that are blasted with a bright Technicolor simulation that suggests The Wizard of Oz. It's Maddin's equivalent of a big-budget risk, breaking from the dour, black-and-white Gimliworld of his last two films. Careful is about repressed passion and its grim consequences, and the setting is his most perfect encapsulation of the theme: the village of Tolzbad, high in the mountains, in which all citizens are ordered to remain silent--the vocal cords of all animals have been cut--because the slightest noise could cause an avelanche. Nevertheless, this little mining community seems to be thriving, and occasionally they indulge in a concert deep in the Alpine caverns. The screenplay, by Maddin and his longtime collaborator George Toles, charts the dissolution of a family through incest (in this film, one son's forbidden lust for his mother) and jealousy (between brothers), and encompassing a ghost and a climactic silent duel in the slick, steep slopes. It should be noted that Guy Maddin's films might be devastating or disturbing if they weren't constantly defused with camp humor, evident in every exclamation point lovingly punctuating his interstitial cards. Toles might be insufferable on a DVD audio commentary track, but to his credit, he brings a storyteller's discipline to the elaborately structured stories, and presumably contributes to much of the overblown pulpy dialogue and narration which has become his partner's lovable trademark.

Much less successful, and the bastard child of Maddin's career, is Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), the one film which broke from his usual method in order to evoke a more painterly canvas. You can practically see the brush-strokes in every frame of this beautiful film, but the beats are off and the pace is a bit too languid and self-satisfied. Most of all, it doesn't really seem to go anywhere--something you can't say about any other Maddin film. It's a fairy tale, a love triangle, cast with Alice Krige, Shelley Duvall, and Frank Gorshin, so at least psychotronic fans owe themselves one viewing. There's some good black humor here--particularly when Duvall struggles to murder Gorshin, who just won't die--and a nice moment in which a tour is offered of a magician's castle, but curiously it became a footnote rather than the career high-point that it was clearly intended to be. It has many defenders, but why bother with this when you could be watching one of his delirious silent-film fables instead? Take, for example, the six-minute-long short "The Heart of the World," commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, which is like Maddin's new manifesto, re-embracing the visuals of Lang and the frenetic montage of Eisenstein and Vertov. It plays almost like a trailer for an epic film that doesn't actually exist, dashing from one awe-inspiring event to the next in its plot, which seems like a cross between Metropolis and L'Age d'Or (if that's possible), and culminating in the spittle-drenched title cards reading "Kino! Kino! Kino!"

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) is his return to feature-length films after several years of producing shorts wherever he could, but by now his reputation had been further fermented by the pollination of the DVDs, and his latest could receive a fairly healthy art-house run. It was actually an adaptation of a ballet, a lustful reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's versatile source novel, but in Maddin's hands it humorously becomes a parable of xenophobia, with the (now-Asian) vampire arriving on British shores with a cache of cash--glowing green through the black-and-white cinematography, a la Greed. He's also a sympathetic figure, opening Mina Murray up to her inner passions and exhibitionism, while the constrained conservatives Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing struggle to end his reign through wooden stakes and bloody murder. It's difficult to find anything new in this material--even the Dracula-as-antihero has been played out--but you can definitely say that it's never been filmed as Maddin filmed it, and the decision to film a ballet in such a stifling style--he's not one to pan back and watch dancers simply dance--is almost perverse.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003) came quickly after, and this remains, to date, Maddin's genuine epic. Blessed with a fatter budget (small by any other standard, but stretched to sheer spectacle beneath his vaseline-smeared lens), a story by famed author Kazuo Ishiguro, and a talented cast (Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Mark McKinney), he goes for broke and returns with a jewel. It's the story of a legless beer baroness (Rossellini) who sponsors an international contest to find "the saddest music in the world." Countries bring their finest musicians, singers, and songwriters to Winnepeg, home of the baroness' beer factory and undoubtedly, as Maddin would tell you, the saddest place on earth, to compete on a stage, mano a mano, like a WWE wrestling match, blasting music in each others' faces while the cheering, stein-wielding audience chooses the winner of each round. (The winner gets to tumble down a slide into a giant vat of beer. Sublime.) The vain Chester Kent (McKinney) assumes he can buy the prize by seducing the baroness and putting on a lavish spectacle in which she's the star. His brother, representing Serbia, is a moody artist who probably deserves to win, if only because the misery that wracks his soul is of truly epic proportions. Narcissa (de Medeiros) is caught between them, for reasons that involve amnesia and a preserved human heart. Like so many of his films, the complicated familial relationships, wracked with passion, rivalry, and hatred, call to mind The Brothers Karamazov--which Maddin seems destined to direct eventually--but the tone is balanced perfectly between comedy and tragedy, and it all ends on a sweeping, flamboyant note that is Maddin's biggest gamble. With this film he won a new collaborator and loyal defender in Rossellini, for whom he quickly directed the short film "My Dad is 100 Years Old," about her relationship with her father Roberto Rossellini. She must have known that if the subject was troubled relationships with fathers, Maddin was the man for the job.

The same year as Saddest Music, Maddin produced an art installation which functioned as a peepshow. Participants could watch each of the ten chapters of his melodramatic serial, Cowards Bend the Knee aka The Blue Hands, by peering through a tiny hole and thus capturing just a bit of the queasy guilt which has cast a shadow over Maddin's life--the subject of the film. It was released in theaters briefly after the success of Saddest Music, and then on DVD in 2004 by Zeitgeist Films. As Maddin says in his "artistic statement" which accompanies the DVD, "This film is my autobiography. Into it, all the memories of my early and recent courtships have been folded, pressed and crushed. Pieces of my life have broken in the process, but all of it is here, only slightly reordered." Well, it's about as true to his life story as any of the occasional tall tales in his book of essays, From the Atelier Tovar (2003), which are so good that you want them to be true. And, undoubtedly, there's plenty of truth amidst the fiction, although there's undoubtedly more fiction in Cowards (however honest it might be to the nature of his emotional wounds). But Cowards is a pure dose of sensationalism, with the central character, one "Guy Maddin," a quivering ball of neuroses whose inner longing is toyed with, and perverted, by the women in his life--although both Maddin the director and Maddin the character possess too much self-loathing to provide for a misogynist narrative. This is a film about murder, lust, and hockey, and it commits to these ideas like a holy Canadian trinity.

The newest, Brand Upon the Brain!, might be considered a sequel, or a second act that displaces the first. Guy Maddin (an actor playing him, that is) visits an island for the first time since his youth. This little island, home to a towering lighthouse, was where he spent his childhood; his mother operated the lighthouse and the orphanage beneath it, domineering and obsessing over her daughter and son to the point of jealousy and lust, respectively. Her husband is a scientist who's using the children as part of a sinister scheme to harvest a kind of cranial nectar, for purposes best kept "secret, secret!" (to echo the narrator). Maddin has claimed that no, wait, not Cowards Bend the Knee, but Brand Upon the Brain! is the true Guy Maddin autobiography, but this is a tall tale of an even taller order; it's hard to imagine that twin teen detectives Chance and Wendy Hale provided any role in his childhood, let alone existed. It's Wendy Chance who dominates Guy's confused childhood crush, but Wendy is in love with Guy's sister, to the point of pretending to be her twin brother in order to seduce her. The cross-dressing and gender-bending manages to champion the shifting gender identities and sexuality of the modern cultural landscape, but at the same time it's positively Shakespearean, never mind that Shakespeare never would have conceived of "the undressing gloves." It's both a classic story--and by classic I mean 1930's Nancy Drew books as well as Twelfth Night--and a steamy cesspit of frustrated sex that could earn an NC-17 if it was necessary to submit this cult item to the MPAA. Like Cowards' unusual origins, Brand Upon the Brain was conceived first as a multimedia experience, and right now, briefly fleeting, is your chance to experience it that way. Live orchestra accompaniment provides a lush, sweeping score written by Jason Staczek (I want the CD!), performed by the Ensemble Noamnesia. A live foley soundtrack is provided by the Footsteps Studio, who dress in lab coats and squeeze celery when a young girl's brain is being extracted. A "castrato" sings during a couple segments (well, sort of), and live narration is provided--by Isabella Rossellini, or Lou Reed, or, when we saw it in Chicago last night, Crispin Glover, who, I expect, can scream "Romania! Romania!" with more ferocious intensity than anyone else (during the grotesque reanimation scene). It's Guy Maddin overload, and the audience was gasping and laughing and giving a standing ovation. It's Maddin's most perverse joke yet, given the taboo confessions he confidently unspools on the screen, like a doctor's encyclopedia of exotic, eradicated diseases. Brand is all about sights so intense and viscerally felt that they must be locked up, repressed, silenced! "Too much for Guy!" reads the title card. But an intoxicating dream for the rest of us.

Salı, Mayıs 15, 2007

Sundance 608, and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book

Madison became a permanent extension of the Sundance Film Festival last Friday night when Sundance 608, a new 6-screen art cinema, opened in town. The Sundance theater project was designed by Sundance president Robert Redford as a means of making every trip to the cinema an idealized experience. The first of two initially planned theaters (the second, "Sundance Kabuki," will be opening in San Francisco later this year), the experiment involves presenting the films in the highest standard possible, giving the filmgoers a sense of true comfort, and creating a sense of artistic community. In other words, it's cinema heaven. The local ABC affiliate covered Sundance 608's opening as though it were a matter of controversy, since only ten minutes away is another art theater, Westgate--as though Redford was trying to present direct competition for this niche market. But this ignores the fact that Sundance is replacing another art theater, Hilldale, which just closed--and was located at the same mall. The truth is that Redford, who knew about Madison through his campaign work for Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, was well aware that Madison is a film buff's town, hosting the increasingly popular Wisconsin Film Festival and with a prestigious film program on campus--a campus which also houses a vast film and television archive. But this controversy is manufactured, and by and large Madisonites are thrilled to be the guinea pigs for Redford's experiment in remaking the multiplex.

In a FAQ form distributed at the theater, it's announced that Sundance 608 (named, simply, after the Madison area code) will specialize in art, international, documentary, and independent films. The opening weekend roster covers all those categories, showing Waitress, The TV Set, and Away from Her (independent), Black Book and After the Wedding (international), and Air Guitar Nation (documentary). Patrons are encouraged to purchase their tickets in advance--not because screenings will sell out, but so they can benefit from choosing their own seats. The theater is three stories, with the main lobby on the first floor containing two lounges, a gift shop, and a cafe. The auditoriums are spread across the first and second floors, and on the second floor is also a fine-dining restaurant. The third floor is actually a seasonal rooftop bar open to the late hours. All of this encourages guests to stick around after the film and half long discussions about what they've just seen, and the nooks and crannies are wonderful to explore and discover, with only one of these innovations coming across as half-assed (a sand-raking area squeezed into the bottom of a stairwell, which seems about as un-Zen as you can get). But the main event is attending the films...we arrived at about 6:35 on Monday night for the 6:45 showing of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, finding our theater at the end of a long, moodily-lit corridor bordered by trees that grasped the walls. In the auditorium, which features wide, tall, and truly comfy seats (and the smell of new carpet), we found the seats we'd selected online--not that it much mattered, since there were only about a dozen people at the screening on this weeknight--and watched not Mountain Dew ads or Jerry Maguire trivia, but the tail-end of an Australian stop-motion animated short, "Uncle," by Adam Elliot (which I could identify because it's featured on the Animation Show Vol. 1 DVD). After the film, there was an animated Sundance logo which cycled on the screen for a few minutes until the film began. No warning to turn off your cell phones--you had damn well better know to do that. Instead, one of the super-polite ushers stepped before the audience, gave his name and the title and director of the film, and promised to watch the first minutes of the film with us to ensure that the film was being properly projected. This might seem highly anal to you, but I wanted to stand up and cheer. Almost every one of my recent theater visits have been framed improperly, with the most egregious offender actually being arthouse rival Westgate, which cut off the bottom-half of the subtitles for the Korean thriller The Host. Most multiplexes are projected by automation, and the teenagers who work at them don't know how to fix the projector if it breaks. This, more than anything, has brought me to the brink of giving up the theater-going experience. Sundance 608 has made me want to pay top-dollar again. Best of all, the obvious care given by the theater management is reciprocated by the grateful audience, who act more respectfully. Sundance 608 will make a film fan out of you.

As for the movie itself: Black Book is Verhoeven's first Dutch-language film in decades, and a return to his earlier, Hitchcock-influenced thrillers, though with a scope and spectacle befitting his Hollywood years. Awash in depravation, sex, and violent betrayal, it manages to evoke a vision of World War II that may even be darker than many of the Holocaust dramas made over the years, although the characters in the film are unaware of the concentration camps, and the film, like its Dutch resistance fighters, is caught up in a game of pure espionage. A stunning Carice Van Houten plays Rachel, a young Jewish woman whose hiding place is bombed at the outset of the film; a brief reunion with her family ends tragically when their raft of Jewish refugees encounters a Nazi boat, which slaughters all but Rachel. She escapes to join the resistance, but finds them ambivalent in the cause of rescuing Jews; rather, their chief goal is to bug the local SS headquarters, which requires Rachel to dye her hair blonde, change her name to Ellis, and seduce a high-ranking Nazi officer, Muntze (an equally stunning Sebastian Koch). The chief innovation of Black Book--the title obviously referring to the sinful secrets many of the characters keep, but also to a literal black book which serves as the MacGuffin--is the way that stereotypes and cliches are subverted, so that seemingly evil characters behave nobly, and seemingly heroic ones become sinister. No one is in the clear; everyone is sunk in a swamp and has committed some kind of crime, either against others or themselves. Much of the film unfolds with a captivating spell, and serves as one of the best WWII thrillers in years, punctuated by scenes which Hitchcock would love, such as the botched kidnapping of a Nazi official which leads to an awkward murder in broad daylight. But as the film wears on and the plot twists in knots, the machinations of the screenwriters (Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman) become more obvious: be certain that when an anecdote about an insulin overdose is laboriously described, it will come into play (absurdly) later in the film. There are many absurd, over-the-top moments, but that's Verhoeven's specialty, and fans will easily rank this as one of his best efforts. Actually, I would too; for all its flaws, it's entertaining and suspenseful throughout.

Salı, Mayıs 01, 2007

The Greatest Theater Experiences of My Life

Recently I posted about attending the opening night of Grindhouse, and how thrilling it was to see the theater transform into a 70's double-feature grindhouse experience thanks to an indulgent and appreciative audience. Later this month I'll be seeing Guy Maddin's new film The Brand Upon the Brain in Chicago, with orchestra accompaniment, a castrati singing, and live narration by Crispin Glover. Naturally, this has me thinking back upon the great theater-going experiences of my lifetime. Here are some memories that linger with me, sometimes many, many years later.

Return of the Jedi (1983). Although my parents insist they took me to The Empire Strikes Back, I don't remember it. My first memory of seeing a Star Wars movie in a theater is the opening night of Return of the Jedi. I learn from IMDB that the release date was May 25, 1983, so I would have been 6 years old. When you're an elementary school kid--I think they still do this--Scholastic holds book fairs at your school, and a month or so before that you get to order books out of something like a 6-page catalog printed on colorful newspaper, the receiving of which was always a major highlight in my young life. I went crazy when I saw that at the next book fair was going to be "Revenge of the Jedi: The Storybook." I asked my parents. They said yes. When I got the book, I memorized every page, and scrutinized the photos as though they were frames of the Zapruder film. (What on earth was that weird alien with the really long face in Jabba's Palace? Could that be Jabba? No, as it turns out--Jabba was a giant slug.) It was a family night out when we attended the film's opening in or near Union City, California, and the line wrapped around the theater. But this was California in May, so it was beautiful. While my parents held our place in line, my sister and I ran to the back of the theater where we placed our ears against the wall. We could hear the speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor--as I explained to my sister, who had not read the storybook (nor had much interest). Zzzhooum, zzzhoumm, zzzhoum. Listening to the bikes race with the pictures still held in my imagination was almost as exciting as seeing the film an hour later. Though not quite.

Hercules (1983). No, this isn't the Steve Reeves film, but the Lou Ferrigno Italian production which was released dubbed in the United States circa '83. My dad took me to the local drive-in to see it, as he saw the Reeves film when he was a kid and it made a big impression on him. Also, perhaps, because he liked the Hulk show. I have a few great drive-in memories, which I'm now holding onto desperately like some old nostalgic coot as drive-ins begin to disappear from the American landscape. None of the movies I saw there were any good: The Karate Kid Part II and Iron Eagles II are the others I remember, and Hercules was probably the worst of them. But I usually wasn't watching the movies our car was pointed at; I was sneaking glimpses of the other screens that formed a circle around the main lot, trying to see if any of them were R-rated (one of the Poltergeist sequels I kept a close eye on). I actually remember nothing about Hercules, except that it was strange and I couldn't follow it. When I asked my dad about it many years later, he said, "That was awful." I don't have the heart to tell him that the Reeves Hercules has appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Jaws 3-D (1983). What a good year! I also saw this terrible Jaws sequel. I hadn't seen the first two, and I have no idea why my dad thought it was a good idea to take me to one. All I knew about Jaws came from a recent trip to Universal Studios California (that was the only Universal Studios theme park back then). Jaws had attacked our tour bus and freaked me out, I knew that much. And there was that scary poster of the first film which was all over the theme park: a dinosaur-sized shark launching like a missile up at the tiny figure of a bikini-clad innocent. This film scared the hell out of me, particularly the opening credit sequence, in which a fish is caught in a maelstrom of underwater froth and blood, and gets sliced in half, the front half still swimming IN THREE-DEE toward the viewer. That was highly disturbing for me. Also disturbing--but thrilling in a way--was the 3-D trailer which preceded the film: the post-apocalyptic B-movie Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. A spiked metal ball was hurtled at the viewer. It gave me nightmares for weeks, so naturally I rented it on VHS the first chance I got and watched it repeatedly.

Jurassic Park/Schindler's List (1993). It's easy to forget now, but when Jurassic Park first opened, the excitement over the groundbreaking special effects was akin to first seeing King Kong in 1933. Yes, there had been CG effects before, but nothing like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, which actually looked like real, breathing creatures. It helped considerably that the CG was augmented by Stan Winston's animatronic dinos, which gave an extra sense of realism; most viewers couldn't tell the difference between the CG and the real, tactile robots, so smoothly did the two effects blend, although it would seem more transparent now, I imagine. Complaints about the script came later--to see this film on opening night was like being caught in the middle of an electrical storm. We were all very tense and full of wonder, and it was a rare experience. I took my mom a week later and she said that she lost ten pounds watching it. 1993 was Steven Spielberg's comeback year. After proving he could still make a Jaws-styled thrill ride with Jurassic Park, he made the Oscar-winner Schindler's List, which has (unfortunately) fallen out of favor with many critics over the years, but was pretty widely acclaimed at the time. My memory of seeing this in the theater is dominated by my sensory memory of aching hunger, because for whatever reason I hadn't eaten that day (or had eaten very little), so the three hours of the film were spent in a physical discomfort that only accentuated the viewing experience. This effect undoubtedly contributed to the fact that Schindler's List was an extremely important movie for me in my high school years, one of those "gateway" films that led to seeing more arty kinds of pictures. (The Seven Samurai and High and Low, two Akira Kurosawa films which I watched on video around the same time, were two major gateway films for me, opening my eyes to what film could be; Orson Welles' The Trial was another.)

12 Monkeys (1995). This one's hard to explain--most of all to myself. About a month before I saw it, I watched Vertigo for the first time. It was an odd viewing, because I was at a friend's house and he invited some girls over, and we had two films we'd rented--Vertigo, which I'd chosen (what a dork), and some slasher film which he chose. The slasher film was terrible, but the girls thought it was better. They were bored to death by Vertigo. At one point during one of the films, his two cats raced in a circle around the room, and used my face as part of their racetrack. So I was bleeding out of my face at one point. It was a weird night, but I thought Vertigo was pretty interesting; I had a particular since of deja vu watching it because I grew up around many of the film's Bay Area locations, and visited, as a child, the mission which is so pivotal in the plot. But the film is all about deja vu and strange feelings of familiarity. If you've seen 12 Monkeys you might know the connection: at one point, Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe hide in a theater showing a Hitchcock retrospective. The scene from Vertigo where Kim Novak points at the exposed tree trunk--its rings marking historic moments of the past--she notes that in those rings, her entire lifespan is so minor as to be insignificant. In the next scene, Stowe puts on a wig Willis gave her--a blonde wig, like Novak's in the film--and he is instantly struck with deja-vu (critical to 12 Monkeys' plot), which is accompanied by Bernard Hermann's theme to Vertigo rising on the soundtrack. The effect this synchronicity had on me in the theater was a physical and mental sensation I've rarely felt. It was sort of like all of these strands of time and space in my life had woven together, knotted themselves briefly, and then unbound themselves and flitted to their distant corners again. I don't know why. But I still have that traces of that curious feeling each time I watch Vertigo, which has now become one of my favorite films. Something tells me it should be the film I watch before I die, possibly right after Kim Novak's long finger moves away from the severed tree. If one gets to pick such things.

Citizen Kane/The Third Man (1941/1949, screened in 1999). Before I moved out to Seattle for grad school, my aunt, who lived in Washington, found an apartment for me. It was tiny, and the window was too high to comfortably look out from, and the closet space was completely taken up by a water heater, and someone kept dropping used condoms around my car in the parking lot below, but there were two really great selling points she couldn't have known about. One is that I was only a few blocks away from the best video store on the planet, Scarecrow Video. The other is that I was even closer to a number of theaters, one of which had a spectacular art house and revival program. Friendless, new to the city, I would frequently walk up and down the main drag by the university on any given afternoon, looking for something to do; wandering into the theater was always a good option. It was here that I first saw Citizen Kane, priding myself very self-consciously that my first viewing would be on the big screen. I haven't seen it since--I've been meaning to get around to that--but I still have very vivid memories of Welles' camera snaking through the passages of Xanadu in search of the ghost of Charles Foster Kane. In the same theater I saw The Third Man for the first time--which I have, happily, revisited. I was particularly haunted by the final scene, the long, unrequited shot, and the Anton Karas music, which followed me on my walk home. I was captivated by the film, mostly because it was not what I was expecting. Because of The Maltese Falcon, I had a skewed vision of what film noir was, and this was my full immersion into the real deal. It was a sad, bleak, but thrilling film, great in unexpected ways.

Blade Runner: The Workprint/Brazil: The Director's Cut (1982/1985, viewed in 1999). These were my two favorite movies around this time. Both of them played in rarified bootleg prints at a different theater in Seattle, I think the Neptune, although to check that out would be to do research, which is taking the fun out of this memory game. The theater had the naughty habit of showing alternate prints of films which they really had no legal right to screen. It was exciting to see the director's cut of Brazil because the Gilliam cut hadn't yet been released on DVD by Criterion (though that would happen shortly). It was a bleaker, more subversive film, and there was eager applause when the theater manager introduced it as "something you've never seen before." But that was nothing compared to the applause which greeted that same statement before Blade Runner. To a larger house, the cult science fiction film--a flop in its day, but now considered one of the great SF films of all time--unspooled in "workprint" form, which means it contained scenes that would later be trimmed, an alternate opening title, and a temporary soundtrack with cues from other films (sometimes recognizable). Like the Director's Cut of the early 90's, Harrison Ford's narration was gone, but at its longer running time the film was more textured and grim. There's an excellent book, Future Noir, which chronicles all the various cuts of Blade Runner, including this one, but some of the clandestine fun will be taken out of this memory when the workprint is (reportedly) released on DVD later this year, along with a new cut of the film. I remember thinking as I watched it: Thank the good Lord I'm living in Seattle.

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, visited in 1999). I was taking a course called Orientalism, which, as I've said before on this blog, changed my life, because it introduced me to the Arabian Nights. The Saragossa Manuscript, which I saw in a revival screening in Seattle that year, had as big an effect on me. Like the Nights, it was a film of stories-within-stories (based, rather faithfully, on the long Jan Potocki novel of the early 19th century). It was witty, it was absorbing, it was playful, it was dangerous, and it paid off in surreal moments of transcendence. I caught this, I think, on the last night it played its Seattle run, and thought myself grateful that I'd taken a chance on it. It remains one of my favorite films.

The Blair Witch Project (1999). Before the film began, the theater owners played an ambient soundtrack of nocturnal, woodsy effects, to make it sound like we were in a campsite late at night. It really creeped everyone out. This was right before the film opened wide in the U.S., and was just playing a few theaters, including Seattle, so the hype was just building and no one really knew what the movie was about. After it was over, people were freaked out. It's hard to explain that now, since the movie--after an ill-advised attempt to make a franchise out of it--has gone out of fashion.

Yellow Submarine
(1968, restored and revisited in 2000). It played the same theater where I saw Blade Runner and Brazil, but it wasn't a bootleg: this was the official, much ballyhooed restoration of the Beatles classic, with a new "Hey Bulldog" scene added in (well, new to American audiences, as it was standard for the British version). I was happy to take my visiting fiancee to this, as we practically met over the movie. I remember two aging hippes sitting behind us: one said, "Man, I got some stuff in the car. We should smoke a few." Or something like that. After "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," there was applause. And there were little kids in the front row who knew the film and were dancing.

Faith Hubley Animation (various years, culminating in 2000 retrospective). This was the first Sundance Film Festival I attended. I was visiting my fiancee, who lived in Salt Lake City. The premiere of Chuck and Buck was the first we saw, but what really seems special these years later is the retrospective of animation by Faith Hubley, wife of animator John Hubley (who had worked on many of the classic Disney films, and later became an important figure in independent animation). Faith was there in attendance, and screened a wide variety of films, including some she had made with her daughter. She answered questions and was delighted to discuss her collaborations with Miles Davis. My wife and I can probably claim this event as sparking a greater interest and curiosity in animation, but the memory is particularly poignant because Faith died of cancer the following year.

Waking Life (2001). Every year we lived in Utah we went to the Sundance Film Festival, and each year suffered the usual pangs of regret at not having caught whatever the big films that year were--as though it were possible to have that kind of precognition. For example, in retrospect I would've liked to have attended the Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiere, but you have to understand that when you read a short blurb about that kind of film in the Sundance preview guide you know it will be either brilliant or awful. Waking Life was another film that could have gone either way, and I credit my wife for talking me into it. A feature length animated film consisting of philosphical discussions? That could be pretty bad. But I hadn't seen Slacker at that point, Richard Linklater's dry-run for this film, and didn't know of what he was capable. The premiere took place in the best of Sundance's venues, the Eccles Theatre, a very large auditorium which the high school uses through most of the year. Before the film, Linklater took the stage and announced that he had only previewed the completed version of the film earlier that day; visibly nervous, he stammered out that the film might work better for the audience if we were all on drugs. Then started the rough cut of Waking Life, pretty much identical to the final version (minus ending credits). The animation, a new, kaleidoscopic rotoscoping technique which enhanced the film's dream-like narrative, was like nothing any of us had ever seen (it's since been used in commercials and in Linklater's own A Scanner Darkly). The meandering conversations were whimsical, smart, and occasionally very moving. Waking Life was extraordinary. The Eccles audience gave a rare standing ovation, and Linklater seemed overwhelmed; although it should be noted that the army of animators had reserved the first several rows, and were as overjoyed as everyone else. This is what I consider to be the ideal Sundance experience: the little guy makes a sincere gem of a film, like nothing you've ever seen, and despite all his risks, it all pays off with this beautiful outpouring of adulation. When I think of Sundance, I like to think of this night, and not all those others--not the woman on the bus vomiting on my wife's feet, or Courtney Love running out through the emergency exit multiple times during the premiere of Julie Johnson presumably so she could take a few hits of something, or all the obnoxious people from L.A. with copies of Variety clutched in their hands while they spread gossip about the local celeb parties.

Suspiria (1977, but for the first time in 2001 or so). This topic started with Grindhouse, but the most authentic grindhouse experience I've ever had, which Tarantino and Rodriguez's film so carefully evokes, was attending a revival theater in SLC for a midnight screening of this Dario Argento classic. It's key that I'd never seen it before, and also key that the film was very, very beaten up, and the soundtrack of such a low fidelity that they had to crank it up very, very high, creating a kind of screeching effect that kept your nerves on edge. The opening murder sequence, with its delirious, sweeping camera movements and vivid blues and reds, culminating in the close-up penetration of a pumping heart, was one of the most visceral experiences I've had in a theater. Just delightful. This may have been when Anne swore off horror movies.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924, dusted off in 2001 or '02). If you're ever in SLC you should visit a place just a little ways south of the downtown called the Organ Loft. Most nights it's a banquet hall rented out for wedding receptions and parties, but it has a seasonal program of silent films with live organ accompaniment. The organ is really something: called the Mighty Wurlitzer, it's a pretty impressive instrument that actually did accompany silent films in the 20's; now it's hooked up to pipes that completely envelop you in the hall, as you sit on one of the fairly uncomfortable chairs they bring out into the middle of the dance floor. Before each film you receive a brief introduction to set the film in context, and then the sound of the organ rattles your chair and lifts you up and tugs you straight into the heart of the film. We saw The Phantom of the Opera this way first--an Organ Loft Halloween tradition--and then West of Zanzibar, also with Lon Chaney, and Nosferatu. My favorite was, of course, The Thief of Bagdad, a veritable epic with a flying carpet and a winged horse and a giant spider and those amazing sets by William Cameron Menzies, which look like Dr. Seuss illustrations. The Organ Loft gets an older clientele--mostly senior citizens, actually--but we went as film buffs. I would leave the theater and wonder why anyone my age would want to do something else with their Friday night.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, but only at Ebertfest in 2004). When we moved to Madison, we lost the chance to go to Sundance and took as substitute two smaller film festivals: the Wisconsin Film Festival (which is quickly growing) and Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival (the most recent of which occurred this past weekend, though we couldn't attend this year). Ebert's festival takes place in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, with a selection of older films that he deems worthy of a larger audience--though his opening night film is usually a widescreen classic. We arrived a little late for 2004's widescreen epic, Lawrence of Arabia, and a line was already stretching around the theater. This meant we had to grab whatever open seats we could find, and these were in the corner of the front row of the balcony. Actually spectacular seats for Lawrence of Arabia, even though there was really no leg room and I couldn't walk after the film. I'd seen it before, but it had minimal impact, because I was too young. But at Ebertfest it completely arrested my attention, and I had no qualms in declaring it one of the greatest films I'd ever seen. It helped that it was projected in 70mm, on an immense screen and personally supervised by Robert A. Harris, who had restored the film under the advice of David Lean. After Ebert introduced the film with none other than controversial MPAA president Jack Valenti--deceased just this past week--who was booed and cheered at once by the conflicted audience, a blissful 228 minutes passed. Harris then joined Ebert onstage with the film's editor, Anne Coates, who excitedly discussed cutting the film with Mr. Lean. I contend this was my greatest filmgoing experience ever: a spectacular film, presented in a spectacular fashion, followed by a deeply engaging conversation steeped in film history. Almost topped a few days later by...

Gates of Heaven/Invincible (1980/2001, at Ebertfest in 2004). Errol Morris was presenting his modest 1980 documentary about a pet cemetery, which Ebert has long declared one of the best films ever made, and with him was Werner Herzog, director of Invincible, which was scheduled for a screening later that day. Back in the late 70's, Morris had told his friend Herzog he was going to make a movie, and Herzog replied that if Morris ever made a movie, he'd eat his shoe. Sure enough, Gates of Heaven was inexplicably produced, and Herzog appeared in a short film shot by Les Blank entitled "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." It was exactly what it claimed to be. After Gates of Heaven screened, a giddy Morris--who had just won his first Oscar, for Fog of War--sparred with the audience during a Q&A, answering questions with either glib jokes or stunning anecdotes. I still remember what he said regarding his interview technique, and have quoted it often: "If you let anyone talk long enough, eventually they will prove themselves to be completely crazy." There was a film screened between Gates of Heaven and Invincible, but it wasn't very good, so let's skip straight to the Herzog. Invincible is good, and definitely overlooked, but what sticks with me most is his extended Q&A afterward. It was getting very late, so most of the theater left, but those who stayed were treated to a typically astounding Herzog conversation, full of stories that sound like tall tales if it weren't for the fact that they come from the life of Werner Herzog and must therefore be true. In fact, he had travelled all the way from Guyana, where he was shooting an airship floating above the canopy of a rainforest (for his documentary The White Diamond), just because Ebert had asked if he could come show Invincible. Herzog is a loyal friend; he returned again this year. I met him briefly, asking him to sign my box set, and he kept repeating, "Vere is Roger? Vere is Roger?"

A Hard Day's Night (1964, then 2004). The Beatles can always provide a transcendent theater experience, although it's only to their favor that no one's going to be playing Magical Mystery Tour theatrically anytime soon. Roger Ebert came up to the Wisconsin Film Festival to introduce this screening, one of his "Great Movies," but what really sticks out in my memory is this little boy who was sitting next to me, bopping his head along with the songs. When John Lennon was sitting in the bathtub, playing WWII games with his toy boats, the boy pulled at his mother's sleeve and said, "I love this part!" That kind of made the movie for me. Later that night we saw the 70's schlock film Giant Spider Invasion hosted by Kevin Murphy from Mystery Science Theater 3000, and that could easily be included on this list too.

Au Hasard Balthazar (2005). At a party I told an Italian research scientist, Giulio, that I really wanted to see Au Hasard Balthazar, that "film about a donkey," which at the time was unavailable on DVD. He sighed, put his hands to his heart, and said, "Oh, it's beautiful!" So imagine how thrilled I was that it was scheduled for the Wisconsin Film Festival in 2005. The night before the screening, I was standing in line with a French woman who was amused that I disliked Godard's latest film. I told her we were seeing Au Hasard Balthazar the next day: she put her hands to her heart and said, "Oh, what a beautiful film!" Now imagine my condition. After the film had ended, I did find it beautiful, but it was so deeply sad and moving--exquisitely so, but still--that I was crying for days after that. Now when I watch it on DVD, it's like a sacred experience.

The Holy Mountain/Santa Sangre (1973/1989, later 2005). Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the cult film El Topo, lives in France, where he writes comic books and novels, gives tarot card readings, and teaches classes in "psychomagic," which is very similar to psychotherapy. He's a difficult guy to meet if you live in Wisconsin, so when I heard that he would be at a horror/SF/anime expo in Toronto for a signing and a screening, I embarked upon a pilgrimage. I was second in an unfortunately short line (for his films had been unavailable in America for decades), but was enthusiastically greeted by actor Robert John Skipper (the gunfighter's son in El Topo), who signed my El Topo soundtrack, and then Jodorowsky himself, who had lit incense at the table and met every fan with a Cheshire Cat smile. He struggled with English, so he only understood my praise for one of his short stories when he interpreted my hand gestures: "I love the story about the boy who cries tears of gold," I said, and moved my fingers down my face. He lit up. "Ah, yes, Ladronn! [A comic book artist.] I love that one! That came out here?" Later that night, he hosted a double feature of his films The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre. The former was to be a rare print, but was so prized that it was stolen in transit. We had to watch a Japanese DVD instead, which was censored, with white blobs obscuring exposed genitals. "I kind of like this," Jodorowsky said after the film. "They are like halos around the sex." He seemed a bit embarrassed by The Holy Mountain, as he's since moved past its obscure symbolism (although it's still a favorite of mine); he was more excited about showing Santa Sangre in a pristine print. It was a crazy night, full of bizarre Jodorowsky anecdotes, but it was also elating, because he announced that he had finally reconciled with longtime nemesis Allen Klein, owner of the North American rights to El Topo and The Holy Mountain. "We faced one other and saw our white beards, and we saw we were both old men. We embraced!" Those films are finally being released on DVD this week.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2005). Nothing special about the screening itself, but the audience made this one unique. I didn't recall any particular cultishness in the crowd of the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring--few were Peter Jackson fans, and though there were plenty of Tolkien fans, presumably, none dressed up or seemed to express any slavish desire to this particular adaptation. By the third film (and already by the second), attending a screening was like attending a convention. Everyone was giddy and excited and part of the same circuit of energy that was flowing from the screen. Not a person in the house wasn't a fan. As the ending credits began to scroll, I think we all felt a little bittersweet. It was over--no more Lord of the Rings films. A major cinematic event had ended. You can complain that the film had too many endings (as I sometimes do), but man, there were people in that theater that were bawling when those hobbits hugged each other farewell.

Faust w/the short "Daddy, Don't!" (1926/2006). F.W. Murnau's Faust is one of the greatest of all silent films, and was the perfect capper to the UW Cinematheque's 2006 Murnau retrospective. David Drazin, a musician from Chicago, would drive the three hours up to Madison every Friday night--even through snowstorms--to provide live piano accompaniment to each of the films, and he was at his best creating a thunderous crescendo in a scene where Faust is lifted and carried high over the countryside by the Devil. Before the film, a short was screened by a UW student, "Daddy, Don't!" The silent film pastiche depicts a father who, when he drinks from a giant jug marked XXX, becomes violent toward his wife and son. At one point Drazin, fed up with the activity on-screen, stops playing, stands, and storms out of the theater, only to emerge on the screen and seize the bottle from the alcoholic husband. Cheers from the audience. Another reason I love the Cinematheque.

Satantango (1994/2006). Sitting through eight hours of Bela Tarr's Satantango promised at the outset to be a chore, but a sizeable crowd appeared that Saturday morning like stoic marathon runners prepared for the challenge. Nine hours later (allowing for a 1-hour dinner break), those who'd survived the journey were elated, transformed. Even the world had metamorphosed, as we stepped out on streets marked by the first snow of the winter.

The power of cinema!