Sunday, January 30, 2011


"And the Oscar goes to... Cheng Siu-keung."

"And the Oscar goes to... Wai Ka-fai."

"And the Oscar goes to... Johnny Hallyday."

"And the Oscar goes to... Johnnie To."

"And the Oscar goes to...
Vengeance, Milkyway Image."

Vengeance / Fuk sau by Johnnie To, 2009:

I overheard a conversation tonight / A husband telling his wife: " 'R.E.D.' stands for 'Retired Extreme Danger'." / Every person alive on this earth who likes movies, from my Aunt Beverley to Yuri Tsivian, from Olivia Munn to Milton M. Levine, should extol the name "Johnnie To" / All three syllables should be recited over the loudspeaker during homeroom / This would be a great victory, symbolic, as when the class rebel has finally succeeded in commandeering the control-board, and swapped out Whitney Houston's 1991 rendition of the national anthem for "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes / Johnnie To is a man who has an oeuvre five times the size of Sergio Leone's / He is a man who, with Wai Ka-fai at his side, will someday stage a paranoiac, electrifying, moral, scene, handlers present for a giraffe / His movies would bewitch a mass, global public / If only there were protesters against our state television............... / The film begins with the reflection, backwards-Cocteau, of a killer in a window, on the other side of things, the flip of the Three Men and a Baby ghost / Shots of hands and fingernails, Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), this stitched-together entity, marker-ing "VENGEANCE" on post-mortem photos / The 'black market arms dealer' who lives in a triage junk-camp / Confronting the killers in the family-reunion-ready picnic-ground at night amid the smoke (of course) and illumination from Kliegs, the three assassins — same as Hallyday's hired three, also paid assassins — eat Pringles with their hot wives — and these assassins have children, same as the two grandchildren of Francis Costello they murdered / Costello's restaurant is called "Les Frères" — brothers and brothers... / When the hitmen's families go home, the shootout begins, leaves fluttering from the trees throughout / Slow-motion, extended, dreamlike, you take a shot, and you just stand there in your own red mist, still loading your gun / As he's being operated on, Costello reveals that a bullet lodged in his brain from a previous shooting will, according to his doctors, result in eventual total-memory-loss — thus he must take revenge before it's too late — hence the photographs snatched at the crime scene, and of his accomplices / Classic To/Wai ingenuity of pacing, shape, structure — withhold this plot-point till nearly an hour in, make the waves on the whip increase frequency / Pursuers in black ponchos / Losing them: the amazing scene where Costello gets separated from his cohorts and stands in the rain trying to match Polaroids to faces... / Bullets are a way of connecting one shot to another, this piece of space and movement to that one / The picture culminates in an exceptional tableau / Common-law wife / All her children are mixed / Francis Costello, a man out of Paris who one day just appears, then stays in paradise, it's like his arrival was out of paradise, man in a suit, with plate and cutlery, mama has another baby-bump

Vengeance / Fuk sau by Johnnie To, 2009:


The Star Boarder

All These People Every Place

The Star Boarder by George Nichols, 1914:

Sometimes in life you have questions / And among those questions — / How to make love to your landlady? / Pine leaves remodel Charlie into Greek statue / Drunk, addresses camera / When the cinema was still novelty / The young projectionists controlled the action / Built a room around a man

The Star Boarder by George Nichols, 1914:


Previous pieces on Chaplin at Cinemasparagus:

Making a Living [Lehrman, 1914] / Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. [Lehrman, 1914] / Mabel's Strange Predicament [Normand, 1914] / Between Showers [Lehrman, 1914] / A Film Johnnie [George Nichols, 1914] / Tango Tangles [Sennett, 1914] / His Favorite Pastime [George Nichols, 1914] / Cruel, Cruel Love [George Nichols, 1914]


Friday, January 21, 2011

Uncle Kent

Email, August 20, 2010

Uncle Kent by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

Hey Joe,

I watched Uncle Kent for the second time the other night. Really impressed by it, once again, — like all good movies, it's better still the second time through.

This time around, for me, it really solidified into a film about Getting Old — that is, aging in the context of still being 'young' and hunched on the precipice of 'old,' (which is to say 'older'). Kent's hitting 40, and there's a kind of alienation that comes with the program or, less severe sounding (though tell anyone in such a particular spot in life that it won't feel severe in ceiling-stare moments), there's that sort of struggle that comes along with trying to relate 100% with 20-year-old friends, with still being single, with still seeking some kind of anchor in life. The old habits persist — full-on bongs and the work that goes along with the career you managed to carve a niche out of when you were in your 20s or 30s, — the trying to ward off the loneliness, — the feeling of being kind of adrift, out-to-sea, what-next. Numb anxiety.

Now, I should say, I never thought of "40" as being old (I'm 32) [as of THIS VERY DAY I'm 33 —ck.], but the landscape of adulthood has, obviously, shifted in 2010. It's all much less easily definable than it was, I don't know, fifteen years ago.

There's an anecdote I've been thinking about a lot recently after I watched Peter Bogdanovich speak on the Make Way for Tomorrow piece he sat down for; this was on the Criterion disc; we just licensed the video for our upcoming Blu-ray of the film. He talks about having once visiting Allan Dwan, years back, when Dwan was, by then, 92. Bogdanovich asked him: "What does 92 feel like?" And Dwan replied: "Well, it doesn't feel any different than 32." (There's that number again...) "But every time I walk past a mirror I get startled, and I say: — Who is that old man?"

I think this picture is your most melancholy film so far. Or maybe not "most" — but there's a kind of dark cloud hanging over the proceedings, same as in Nights and Weekends, and Alexander the Last too. That sense of: "Little man (or little woman) — what now?" Maybe I say "most melancholy" because this picture is so focused upon a single individual, and this solitary, island-of-one thing has become more pronounced — like all the events around Kent circulate in a kind of orbit, or a current,... and things are starting to feel untouchable. There's the Chatroulette business on one hand, which is weirdly 'social' while at the same time just emphasizing YOU ARE ALONE. ("Only connect.") Everything that comes out of that phenomenon, in fact, — and the way Chatroulette gets presented in the movie — plays like a kind of fantasy (which is at least 60% of what meeting people on these things online is like anyway). Kent (Kent Osborne) meets this Kate (Jennifer Prediger) on Chatroulette (somehow — 'somehow'-in-quotes as anyone who's ever dipped into Chatroulette will understand), the two strike up a bond from the encounter, and Kate flies out to visit Kent in LA to spend a weekend. There's a bizarre hand-off, an unstable back-and-forth, between supposed documentary (cf. all the foregrounded documentary elements of the film) and fiction: again, the essential 'impossibility' of this encounter. The insane fucking brightness of the LA light only intensifies all this strange unreality cast upon things...

Uncle Kent by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

Two favorite shots: a close-up of Kent's face while he's talking to Kate on the first night, where it's obscured by shadow, in relief against the yellow-lit wall. Another: after Kate leaves, overhead shot of Kent on the bed, reviewing the videos he's captured ('captured' is the right word) which he can only view by popping on his reading-glasses...

Uncle Kent by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

The title: Uncle Kent — it's really perfect. It conveys everything about the film.

The whole botched threesome business, and the next-morning guilty make-up play by Kate — it's all a really brilliant scenario, and you've modulated it perfectly. The rhythm of the film is also superb, but that's something you've managed to nail from at least Hannah Takes the Stairs onward...

I think the thrown-out-there "Write on my wall" from Kate, at the end, is positively crushing.

(She has a really nice voice, btw.)

And I love the full-circle that the film arrives at with the ending. From the cat's nestling with the "I Heart Kent Osborne" button at the opening shot, to a couple crabby paw-swipes at its papa (or uncle, I guess) at the end. Kent's 'heart''s sort of gone away by that point — or, at least, has taken a leave of absence. Live to go-on another day.

Uncle Kent by Joe Swanberg, 2011:

So: excellent, excellent work. You're hitting a stride. UK's a more pared-down work than Nights and Alexander, something in a more 'minor' mode, — but just as deep and fleshed-out. In some ways, like I said, it seems like a kind of response (not going so far as to say 'corrective') to LOL. In line with that, I'll say Kevin Bewersdorf always strikes me as representing a kind of chaotic, but grounding variable (if that makes any sense, but anyway, that's my sense), and I think his persona, or presence, kind of speaks for itself; thus far you've always used him to bring things to a kind-of bust-up point, both in the end section of LOL, and also by means of the trailer-party/cock-trick section of Kent. I'm always happy to see him in your films.

You said: "I hope it's a movie that people feel like popping in the DVD player every once in a while and just hanging out with." That's exactly how I feel about this movie, among others you've made. For me, Uncle Kent's a kind of mood-booster — hard to explain. It's there in the atmosphere, the pace, the length, the story... Things here to keep coming back to, — till I hit 40 in seven years, — and then probably after too? I really love this film.



Uncle Kent premieres today (January 21, 2011) at Sundance, and on cable-TV on-demand with providers across the US, via IFC. Check your local listings.



Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gabi on the Roof in July

reRun Gastropub Theater,
Friday January 21st - Thursday January 27th

Gabi on the Roof in July by Lawrence Michael Levine, 2010:

If you're in the NYC area, you should make some time over the next couple days to see my friend Larry's film, Gabi on the Roof in July, which is playing for a week at the new reRun Gastropub Theater in Dumbo.

It's a beautiful, thoughtful piece of work, and sports one of the most unusual (in a good way) paces I've seen in a recent film: the scenes unfurl with a calm at once enchanted and unnerving, and gradually accumulate into a recursive structure that suggests development, emotional progress, lies just beyond the characters' present reach. The drifting camerawork seems calibrated to a daydream, and lends the ambiance requisite to a portrayal of 2010 Brooklyn as a kind of mass performance space.

Gabi on the Roof in July by Lawrence Michael Levine, 2010:



Thursday, January 13, 2011

When They Want To Movies Can Still Blow Your Fucking Mind

On the Occasion of Having Recently Watched Johnnie To's Latest Film, Vengeance

Today David Bordwell wrote a great post on his blog, here. It's one entry in a series-in-progress pertaining to the PDF publication of the second edition of his excellent book Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, which you can buy here. Bordwell's blog post contains the following passage:

"Yet all signs of life haven’t been muffled. In the current restrictive climate, Johnnie To can make eccentric, occasionally shocking films like Running on Karma (2003) and Throw Down (2004). I take comfort in learning just last weekend what terminated Stephen Chow’s directorship of The Green Hornet. According to one report he proposed to plant a microchip in the hero’s brain and have Kato control him with a joystick. In an Entertainment Weekly article not online, director Michel Gondry claims that Chow’s plans were too far out. 'Really, really crazy ideas that you would not dare bring to a studio. AIDS was involved. Plastic boobs were involved too.' That Gondry, one of Hollywood’s approved Wild Things, can find something Chow proposed over the top gives you hope.

"A couple of months before the handover, I was in Kowloon talking with a cab driver. He told me confidently, 'Chinese people are born capitalists. We know very well how to make money. We will never accept Communism.'

" 'But,' I said, 'the Mainland has had a Communist government for forty years.'

"He shrugged. 'Forty years is not a long time.' "


Friday, January 07, 2011

The Only Son

Praise, Sing Out

Hitori musuko [The Only Son] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1936:

David Bordwell said the following in the video piece on the Criterion DVD featuring him and Kristin Thompson: "I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema. And if I had to choose his competitor, it'd be Mizoguchi. And if I lived on a desert island I would just take all their films with me and that would be fine — that's cinema as far as I'm concerned." / Among the '30s films that really worked sound we can count M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Modern Times, Vampyr, The Lady Vanishes, The Only Son... / Ozu uses sound in The Only Son to concatenate shots, environments, 'memes' — sounds carry over on top of the shots, effectively glue together scenes or spaces; at times they give way to a sound-form that rhymes with the original — Ozu employs the soundtrack in this film, his second talkie (following the documentary/essay Kagamijishi), the same way he uses image-forms to carry the viewer deeper into the environment of the story and the network of resonances that orbit the star-protagonists / He suggests the metaphorical (sometimes gently symbolic, often metonymic) import of forms usually by way of the "pillow shots" which 'cleanse the palate' of the viewer between scenes that overtly advance the narrative — these pillow shots also ground the action geographically — however, as in a film like The Only Son, the pillow shots frequently reveal themselves as the set-up (the Shot A) to a series of 'establishing shots,' all of which are understood by the viewer, even as quickly as by the point of, say, Shot B, to represent the further 'penetration' into a place, keeping aloft a form evoked in Shot A / Sometimes the form may be a sound / Ozu and Lang / The tick-tocks of the clock(s) at the beginning (two clocks which ring the hour, several moments out of synch: the profound implications of Ozu-ian metaphysics) morph into the factory sounds outside the house / The factory sounds give way to the spinning wheels at the silk mill / The lantern in the opening shot finds its partner first in the lantern hanging near a wagon-wheel, as the silkworm-delivery-squadron parades through the background (the wheel itself linking the spinning wheels of the mill; more wheels than in early Eisenstein... you can read a bit more about this in my post on Ozu's A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... here), then in the pile of bric-à-brac (here to inform us that the action has moved back into a household) / In Ozu scene-movement comes sidelong, absolutely oblique, totally clear / Baby chicks topple from and hop about some steps / Their chirps carry over / And Otsune (Chôko Iida) grinds a wheel picking up the circular action (literal/metaphorical) from her day at the mill, while her own offspring sits nearby, on the floor of the ramshackle home of the deceased father, a workplace away from the workplace, the domicile itself an abandoned mill / Thirteen years later, after Otsune has committed herself to putting her son through school, and this son, Ryôsuke (Shin'ichi Himori), has moved to Tokyo and taken a wife, Sugiko (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), the mother will at last take a break from the job to visit her son — presumably their first contact in years (his wife and his baby come as a surprise), in any case her first glimpse of Tokyo / Ozu films the prosperous capital with a camera mounted upon the running-board of an automobile — low-angle, overwhelmed, slightly abstract shots of a world that exists nebulously for the mother and for the son as well / The pair remove to Ryôsuke's house, located in a patch of bungalows which no road or path accesses directly — you have to cross an overgrown lot to arrive at the front door / A blighted district in Tokyo, where chimney smoke tricks the eye into spotting arson / When Ozu first moves us into the family's home (in the 'prelude') or into the son's home (in the film's 'body-proper'), we note that every coordinate of the frame has been appointed / A life that leaves its mark on, and by, the objects... the objects of production / Ryôsuke never smiles when he talks to his wife / What year did Japan learn geometry / Ozu-Antonioni-Tokyo (down to the cable spools from Il grido) / A caged bird leaps in the background of Ookubo's (Chishû Ryû's) restaurant / At the same time: Ryôsuke: "But in Tokyo you can hear cuckoos brought from the mountains in Nagano." / In Ookubo's tonkatsu joint, he remarks that his son Jirô ("Bakudan Kozô") has been giving him a lot of grief — cut to: long shot with sake cup in foreground, then Ryôsuke/Otsune POV angle of bottles propped on the counter — cut to: Ryôsuke: "Aren't you busy?" — Ookubo with a smile: "Not really." / On the walls of Ryôsuke's home: Joan Crawford — the "Germany" poster (ewige getaway — given the film being watched by mother and son, the 'talkie') — an upside-down charm against the baby's crying which, as it turns out, either does seem to work, or the baby... just isn't much of a wailer (one of the film's lovely grace notes) / Grace: the repeated shots of the mother dozing off, head bobbing, seated at the theater in front of the film, in correspondence with the rhythm of the music, an early precursor of the Martin child's dream of music in Film Socialisme / In his interesting booklet-essay, "Japan, 1936", which accompanies the Criterion disc, Tony Rayns identifies the talkie as Willi Forst's 1934 Unfinished Symphony / Rayns calls the footage "florid", but I think that Ozu's selections from the picture highlight the paradise for a Ryôsuke, any proletarian viewer, or any viewer, of the kitsch-dream / The movies were their getaway, their Lufthansa / In Japan, 1936, America, 1936, entertainment was exactly that and that was the movies / When Mártha Eggerth rushes through the grass it's almost as good as City Girl, and more desperate / Anyway, you can see ten-thousand films in this Only Son from before and after, it is as definitive as it is open (n.b.: Bordwell articulates the crucial point that in Ozu a pillow shot of a window, taken from inside a structure, is highly charged: the succeeding shot might present a wider-shot of a room inside of the domicile, or might move to the world outside the window — calm/anxiety at once) — for example, look at the cut from the film-within-the-film footage, the insert-shot of the tossed kerchief, to the fade-to-black, which picks up again back in the 'film world,' — this is pure Godard, pure Vivre sa vie / From that very fade-to-black, Ozu cuts back into, in fact, a sleeping-pillow in the foreground: Ryôsuke's gift to (just-dozing) Otsune / The mother built of sacrifice and expectation costs (no, really costs) a son a great deal / When Ryôsuke juts his head through his neighbor's window: intro to the Tomio (Tomio Aoki) thread — it's like Costa's Fontaínhas / And the sound of the pork vendor's clarion... / And it's an amazing scene when Ryôsuke remarks to his mother, the two exposed in the afternoon light: "The skylarks are singing so loud and clear." — cut to: angle, empty sky, bird-chirps on the soundtrack — repeat with Otsune — she looks up — cut to: angle, empty sky — (Chaplin's The Great Dictator: "Hannah, look to the sky...!") / Ryôsuke the geometry teacher, trapped in geometry / Otsune before the rice cauldron, as Otsune before the grinder thirteen years prior / (I love when Ozu returns to a specific shot setup, or a slight variation thereof, throughout a film but each time inflects it to a new focal point, literally by altering the plane of focus, a once prominent detail present only as a blur, like purely now a detail of 'landmark'; the Joan Crawford irasuto is just such one of these anchors) / "Here we're all the same. That's Tokyo." / The gravity of emotions pushes down on the skull and makes the head bow / Peaceful-sleeping baby is the counterpoint to the gravity, horizontal on the floor, prone (calm/anxiety; "an equal and opposite reaction") / The mother (a grandmother) holds her grandson, the breeze blows her kimono as she bobs, dancing and soothing the boy, echoing the movement of the drying laundry, while the wheels of an adjacent wagon, blocked in part by the window, recall the wheels of the silkspinners, thirteen years before — a connection between all generations / Tomi-chan appears before Otsune here like a spirit of premonition, before his accident (i.e., when he gets kicked by a horse) / The Tomio episode seems at first to represent an extreme tonal shift from the main story of the mother and the son — its connection to that thread is in remission until the accident / Two successive epilogues to the film, Ozu's most uniquely structured film to date / (The episode with the horse — precursor to something out of Fellini) / Ryôsuke — standing in the hospital before the anatomical model, the half-flayed man (cf. Ray's Bigger Than Life and the x-ray machine) / Crossing the field / "Think about it — would we be happy if we visited Gi'ichi many years from now, and saw that he was just a night-school teacher?" / At the end — the ineffable image of the mill gate, — the weeds that sway in the wind, as the trees before the mountain / To return to Bordwell, sidelong: The Only Son is cinema of the highest order / The work of a kami/creator who in Japan-'36 hasn't yet advanced into his three final decades of work / Each richer than the preceding

Hitori musuko [The Only Son] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1936:


Previous pieces on Ozu at Cinemasparagus:

A Straightforward Brat [1929]

Friends Fighting Japanese-Style [1929]

Tokyo Chorus [1931]

A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... [1932]

Where Have the Dreams of Youth All Gone? [1932]

Passing Fancy [1933]

A Tale of Floating Weeds [1934]

Kagamijishi [1936]