Thursday, October 22, 2020

Branded to Kill


Jō Shishido loves the smell of boiling rice. Its aroma makes others sick.

The job. "To escort a big shot in a certain organization."

"You're ranked No. 3 among killers."

The discovery of a young woman's body in a car. "Who do you think did it?" "No. 2, No. 4 — or the mysterious No. 1."

Butterflies on barrels, pinned to the wall, fixed phallus and fluttering yoni. When misremembering the film in color, recall the insects as purple. Aims a pistol at a nipple, a dead giant moth has drifted to her pubis. 

Ornamental graphics attack.

Branded to Kill [Koroshi no rakuin, 1967, Seijun Suzuki]. All bets are off.


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Bar Snakes

They Bite Like Snakes, or They Fool Around Like Kids

An Interview with Alex Warren and Kate Adams

October 2020


CRAIG KELLER: Why the short format, or rather: The short format: now more than ever?

ALEX WARREN: The short format — now more than ever, yes! Why not? What is time? 

Where's the invention? Where are the people who burst out of themselves? In this case with Bar Snakesit felt nice to focus on a simple and tense structure. Also, we have no money, so this was a cheap way to do it. 

CRAIG KELLER: But the one obstacle that arises for me in terms of getting provisionally lost in a film (of any length) is: How to watch: Vimeo, YouTube, etc... and on iPad, iPhone, or sitting down in a desk chair before a computer. To throw the film up onto an AppleTV or Roku or Fire et al takes a couple steps before. Maybe none as off-putting as what you'd do anyway to get something off of an iTunes rental, if one were to tally the number of button clicks from cognitive choice to now-the-film-is-playing. What are your feelings about this at this particular point in time (which could be drastically different even a year from now)?

ALEX WARREN: Yeah, I agree, lots of various and potentially annoying/distracting options to get your streaming situation up in an inviting way.

I think that any sort of experience of getting lost in any artform takes a desire and an effort from the viewer/listener. There's always going to be an obstacle. Getting to the theater from across town, streaming from the living room at your home, watching something with a group, the helicopter flying over your house multiple times during the movie, etc. There's always something.
Maybe it's essential for us as an audience to try and take ourselves back to a time when we cared. If the movie is worth a shit and you have the ability to access desire, then a lostness is possible regardless of the viewing medium. Maybe an additional question could be how do we find ways to access our deepest emotions and feelings during a time of seemingly endless, mindless consumption options?  

CRAIG KELLER: I'm no COVID-refuter, but what changes, in all seriousness, were exacted upon the shoot due to the virus? If you could say a little about the table-shot, maskless, that would be great, as it's an observation of asshole'ishness, and yet how nothing can really stop a crush, and yet is really shot as it is, maskless.

ALEX WARREN: We shot outside on the patio of the Lyric Hyperion Theater which made it easy for the small crew to spread out. Everyone not in front of camera wore masks and actors wore masks in between takes. Kate and I felt comfortable doing the scene together without masks after we both were tested the day before and got negative results. 

CRAIG KELLER: Kate, what is your story in general, in terms of background? Are you LA born? If not how long have you lived there? How did you meet Alex?

KATE ADAMS: I’ve lived in LA for seven years now. I was born in London and grew up in New York. Alex and I met on the set of a short film Former Cult Member Hears Music for the First Time by Kristoffer Borgli. I was immediately struck by his kindness and humor and was so excited to work with him again, and be directed by him.

CRAIG KELLER: Do you still spend any amount of time in London? If so, what's your sense of the difference in movie culture comparing that city to New York or LA? I'm leaving out a lot of regional provisionals, but I might expand the question a little wider based on your take (if any).

KATE ADAMS: I don’t spend much time in London anymore, so I can’t really speak to the movie culture over there. I do go back and forth between LA and NYC fairly regularly and I would say the cities bring out a different creative geometry in people — the expansive, suspended, over-saturated LA environment amplifies the dreaminess of imagination or fantasy; the dense angular, grid-based overlapping sense of NYC nourishes a sense of reality, tempo, and accountability of actions. I think those distinctions influence the type of film projects and acting that resides in each city. 

CRAIG KELLER: So tell me about the dating landscape now in LA — the COVID-era to begin with, but also the kind of post-Tinder world that everyone who uses the apps have gotten pretty acclimated to as a regular norm of life. Given the immense circle of friends in the city, would you say apps are less of a crutch than elsewhere? I can tell you that Tinder in Phoenix is a dire, dreadful bit from the standpoint of a guy like me or more generally people like us. I'll only sling the stereotype-truths offline.

KATE ADAMS: I would say the dating landscape in LA is extremely bleak. I’ve never been much of an app dater — I’d rather trust my compass of real time and space when someone strikes my fancy and take it from there, rather than commit to an entire meal or spend my precious time in a poorly lit overcrowded bar with someone I don’t really know or particularly like. I will say, I found the apps briefly amusing from an anthropological perspective but I found myself meeting up with people I thought would lead to absurd situations or “scenes" rather than from an earnest mate-seeking perspective and wasted a good amount of time that is better spent on actual Creative Ventures. That being said, I live in Highland Park and have witnessed several app date meet-ups from afar so I think it’s still a thing. In this COVID-era, I have definitely witnessed a post-quarantine carnal desperation that definitely lends itself to the immediacy of app meet-ups and hook-ups. 

CRAIG KELLER: Do you still sense a struggle in meeting someone (friends, dates, etc.) while having to traverse neighborhoods, which nevertheless all connect in a puzzle-like super-city (though it's no Tokyo or London), or does the ease of ride-sharing services just make it maybe less stressful compared to the experience of the saddo in Allentown, PA, who's running to a many-ways-distanced Hooters? Or someone in East Mesa targeting a Scottsdale night out using a $100 round-trip Uber?

KATE ADAMS: I don’t notice much neighborhood distinction in LA other than the major East/West divide. We’re so accustomed to our cars as our main locale, so I think a drive or a ride-share to meet someone who seems vaguely promising would be within the realm of normal behavior. I think? Though I dont know how many people are taking ride-shares since COVID. I myself tend to avoid them because I am very sensitive to car smells and a scented air freshener tree can ruin my night.

ALEX WARREN: I grew up in a place that's very spread apart, so I know what you mean. I miss that expanse of nature. Living in this urban environment is nice because accidental friendships can spark at any corner in any inch of the city.

CRAIG KELLER: Alex, this is a loaded question, but living where you do and given what you've said, do you ever feel like there's just an overdose of friends? As I get older I make it harder for people to reach me, and now given all the things we're in the eye of, it's another reason I've put off moving to LA, especially because I can fly in at a moment's notice in an hour. I'd rather be alone conspiring in my apartment. What I'm missing is the geography. And now we're coming into cyberpunk territory.

ALEX WARREN: Certain friendships are taxing, for sure, but it's me that stresses myself out. I struggle with over-commitment. I'm a curious little dog with a tail that wags when he's asleep.

Yeah, I really love the idea of living in solace and space, a Bergman's Island life with my thoughts and things and the birds. Quarantine days look like that, sometimes. But it's really not for me. I need people. People are entertaining and absurd and hysterical. I need to make new acquaintances. I want to watch people arguing on the street. I want to get out of town.

Our high-tech low-life modernity coupled with the global pandemic has accelerated this cookie-cutter template-based approach to art and music and movies. It's the same with friendships. Like, if you agree with me on this and this and this, I guess that makes us friends. Instagram recommends I become friends with you and you and you because we like movies. That's so boring! And it's infuriating when considering the source and what vested interest IG actually has in you and that other person and your local community. It's not real. It's corporate gagging. 

I only feel overdosed by bullshit culture and a lack of courage in modern American existence.   

Is Repo Man considered a cyberpunk movie? Alex Cox is interesting.

CRAIG KELLER: What's familiar and around the central shot for me: the cinema of Altman (and Hong), with regard to the long take but the careful zooms (or two variations, back and forth, on one zoom technique) as the two of you are talking. It's a perfect touch because it captures Kate's demeanor to link her to the tradition of S. Duvall, and Alex your cadence and gestures remind one of any number of Altman males, like Michael Murphy for an example.

ALEX WARREN: I love Michael Murphy, thank you. Tanner '88 is my shit. I'd love to work with him.

No one does the zoom like Altman. He was so loose, so inventive and carefree. 

Also, I feel like Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacarau, Aquarius) is a modern master of the zoom. I remember first seeing Neighboring Sounds and loving how he treated the photography of scenes. 

The cinematographer for Bar SnakesRobby Piantanida, has a conductor's touch. He understands rhythm, so I didn't try and overly choreograph how we used the zoom. I asked him to watch our rehearsal a few times and we discussed starting on the hands and eventually landing on my face, and that was it. He was very connected to the performances and operating at his discretion.

KATE ADAMS: I guess I sort of am hesitant to make references like these in regards to my own work — Shelley Duvall and Altman are so often mentioned (pretty much every story board or pitch deck I have received in the past 3 years has at least one mention to 3 Women). I think that tone is easy to mimic but the essence of what makes these things so great and timeless has very little to do with style. It’s their specificity. There is an earnestness to Shelley Duvall which I greatly admire, but again, to bring my own version is its own story.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Fighting Elegy

In Erections

"You must break school rules one by one to be brave!" — Set by Kaneto Shindō in 1935 at two rural boys' military academies, Fighting Elegy [Kenka elegy, 1966] is perhaps director Seijun Suzuki's most searing denunciation then-to-date of the right-wing militarism that took hold in Japan in the years leading up to the Pacific War or, more broadly, the proliferation of the Axis in World War II. It's also the film in which he most explicitly points to the source of nationalist foment: the "middle schools" operating throughout the country's rural enclaves. The source of the source? Repression, individual and sexual, stemming primarily from institutions such as the macho alpha-male society (erotic transference and release in combat*), organized religion, and family dynamics, nuclear and surrogate. Self-denial, Suzuki suggests, leads to downfall and ultimate defeat (if 'vying''s even in the wheelhouse); abundance, experiential and aesthetic, saves the day. Remarkable, the Scope of the frames, the ingenuity of how (faux) raccord functions in taking us from one scene to the next. Try to see Fighting Elegy on as large a screen as possible: the masochistic acts, the cleats, the tacks, the swinging mace, will be served well: the action will be transubstantial, monsieur.

*e.g., the irrigation well whose muck, as photographed, assumes a semen'y phosphorescence.


Monday, September 07, 2020

Tokyo Drifter

 Draft My Kitsch

Coming back to Tokyo Drifter [Tōkyō nagaremono, 1966] after several years, I'm surprised to recall that the storyline is based around the nuances of a real-estate transaction (read as: extortion) for a building in Tokyo whose special value, besides being a piece of not-especially-prime Tokyo property, remains elusive to me. Yet the movie persists as Suzuki's most popular (famous? infamous?) next to Branded to Kill and, now, possibly, Pistol Opera. My opinion is that Suzuki already went as radical (or as constantly used in reference to his œuvre, "pop art") in many of his earlier works: Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, and the masterpiece Kantō Wanderer. Nevertheless, Kōhan Kawauchi's plot's not the thing. Howard Hampton wrote a good essay with the get-this title "Catch My Drift" for the Criterion Blu-ray, in which he remarks "[t]he plot is just an excuse to set hit men and their ornamental paramours in motion." As I see it, everything leads up to the fulcrum, the literal pivot-point of the figural sculpture holding aloft a lunar donut-bloom blasted by a red, then yellow, filtered spotlight: a cipher, the inexplicable, that represents the Zen 'key' of the movie. The bounteousness and silence of form: a container or structure for plenitude of emotion: fine, then, pop-music for the eye (although the theme song "Tōkyō nagaremono" wouldn't, shouldn't, just can't be the retinal tune: that number's pastiche — although it serves the function of giving the recently-passed Tetsuya Watari, as protagonist Tetsu, an idea for his moniker). The scenes, even the boring ones with men sitting around discussing promissory notes, could seemingly be shuffled in many configurations of chronology, give or take a few maimings or murders (such as that of dippy manga-maniac Mutsuko [Tomoko Hamakawa] whose corpse is shown from a ceiling-alcove's-eye-view) or the ritorno of the totemic leaf-shorn tree and radio tower that capture Tetsu's gaze. (Speaking of which, seeing through walls — a twist on the functionality of the shōji screen — recurs throughout Suzuki, mostly in the form of a back-office able to keep an eye on the proceedings on the dancefloor or bar at the front of the establishment. Here, one can see the dancefloor, illuminated purple, from the side, from above, or even from below in a basement crawlspace jammed with pipes.) Regardless of its ranking in Suzuki's Sixties filmography, Tokyo Drifter holds a special status as the straw that started cracking the camel's back, despite the lunatic entries before (e.g., Story of a Prostitute) and after (e.g., Fighting Elegy).


Saturday, September 05, 2020

Christmas Eve Now


It's the Eve of Eves

What have you come with

The Charles Whitmans are already here

Emilia's scratching her jeans

I'm asking Heath' what she thinks it might mean,

She insists that I'm being the meanie,

That can't operate in this green work-building,

All of a sudden my phone keyboard's looking like teeth

Set to make Keith into the working-board Pretendo gelding.

Thanks to work-place allowance for Heath'

Swap out seminars, pig-tie your grief

Apprehension can't get no relief

Your child-cat arms seek a reef

Like Gainsbourg's girl in the deep....

Now Gramma has casserole fired

It's spilt-over the dishes of beets

Don't ask which uncles she's "sired"

It mixes the boys with the streets!

Hudson's Adventure missing island and soap

Gramma promised the ninnies it couldn't snag scrotes

But Soap-on-a-Rope has Mind-of-Its-Own

It's inclined to hail Mary, unmask its Jabrone'.

I call my dander "chin-chalk" —

Absolute respect to the Sheikh.

My iron witness protects me —

He's Jonas Salk, he's Allah, Khalik.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Du côté de la Côte

An Idea of Eden ("It's Sunday in Peking")

Du côté de la Côte [Around the Côte, 1958], a film dedicated to the memory of André Bazin, marks the second travelogue documentary-essay of Varda's following Ô saisons ô châteaux (a film admired by the late critic, who remarked in some of his final writings upon the unfairness that the film couldn't take home a prize at given festivals because of a limit of three winning works from France!). 

If Varda's film has a central observation, it's "learning to live together" — the 'bumpkin' native-residents and the influx of tourists and campeurs; statues and the merely statuesque; the ancient and the modern. See the opening shot, pictured above, in which a saisonale is juxtaposed with the historical skyline, and looms like a blanker thinker of Rodin. Tombs around the Côte are fashioned with "the charm of existence." Shot sequences contain uniform, but still rhythmic, numbers of frames before and after each cut (a trademark of Varda's editing). Movement and stasis; movement prevails. Note the scene where the camera tracks forward and the shoots of vegetation, believed to be static, part to accommodate the apparatus, finally revealing a white horse in promenade drawing an empty carriage. I'm reminded of some Zen koan or other that I read years ago: white horse, or horsely whiteness? (cf. Moby-Dick, or: The Whale)

Varda recognizes (and as she affirms in the Bonus) the difference between open-Eden (Éden en plein air) and that Eden sequestered — a small shock — behind the gates of private property. (She includes a shot of one emblazoned: "Rosalia," in a small token and reminder to her newborn Rosalie). "But nostalgia for Eden is a garden.... a transplanted garden... the notion of a garden."


Thursday, August 27, 2020


 Elle l'ouvrira, la meuf

Not cruelly meant, and two to tango after all. Photographed by Sacha Vierny, here is one of the great films about faces, like Godard's Band of Outsiders or Bergman's The Magic Flute. But how's this for the full title, the first to set the tradition of Varda's lengthy ones: L'Opéra-Mouffe, carnet de notes filmées rue Mouffetard à Paris par une femme enceinte en 1958 [The Opéra-Mouffe: Diary Filmed on the rue Mouffetard in Paris by a Pregnant Woman in 1958, 1958]. The film is set, not close exactly to the Place de l'Opéra (though it serves up personages), but on and around the Latin Quarter's rue Mouffetard, a food marketplace frequented by the working- and lower-classes and used as a hang-out for the outright destitute, located near Varda's flat of the period. Mouffe, bouffe, (as in la grande), Varda has digested her meal well before Ferreri's big feast of '73.

L'Opéra-Mouffe shares some features with La Pointe-Courte. Its structure, for one: built out of parallel observations in sets, one poetic documentary (the street-life), in alternation with one poetic narrative (Varda's — or rather her stand-in Dorothée Blan(c)k's — amorous life with André Bourseiller, before and during Varda's pregnancy [sa grossesse] with their daughter Rosalie Varda). (He's involved in Agnès's previous films, and in 1966 can be spotted in Godard's Masculin féminin at a café table in a meeting with Bardot.) Varda likened that first film, La Pointe-Courte, to Faulkner's novel If I Forget Thee, Jersusalem (also known as The Wild Palms, as insisted upon by the editor), citing the book's seemingly surface-unrelated alternating narratives from one chapter to the next, though that doesn't jibe, isn't flush, in sitting parallel next to Varda's movie either: her picture involves a wide milieu of village fishermen and their families out of which grows, more than even merely contiguously, the drama of the two lovers, whereas Faulkner's work involves a couple tracing the US before rearriving in the southeast, and a wholly unrelated pair of jailbirds, only one of whom is truly concentrated upon, in the wake of a levee-burst. (Both La Pointe-Courte and If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem are masterpieces.) Nevertheless, Varda connects the latter film consciously to the earlier: she gives us a shot of the same wood and grain close-up from La Pointe-Courte, before a Picasso-esque shot of a citrus fruit, a sun, a flower — as a voice intones: "It was a beach / And the sun spread wide its rays..."

Carry over now to the "Quelques uns" ("Some of Them") sequence, where we're to make the connection that the faces on the Mouffetard were once those of infants (a point Varda reiterates in her accompanying Bonus) — "Vivants, ils sont absents / Morts, ils sont disparus..." ("Alive, they're absent / Dead, they're gone...")

An exhausted woman schlepps past the word "PAIX" scrawled repeatedly on the wall, potatoes dropping from her sack — another word: "Algeria." Moments later, her doppelgänger eats flowers. "RIDEAU." ("CURTAIN.")

In the 2007 Bonus, she links infancy with the elderly, as aforementioned — and muses upon the link between pregnancy and gluttony.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Ô saisons ô châteaux

What Soul Is Without Flaws?

Pierre Braunberger commissioned Varda for 1957 to make a short travelogue documentary in color about the châteaux, or castles, of the Loire Valley: Ô saisons ô châteaux [O Seasons, O Châteaux], named after the title and recurring line of Arthur Rimbaud's poem. She films the still and semi-ruinous exteriors and interiors of the locations, and on the soundtrack a narrator intones the script. Varda won't be too irreverent in her treatment, but she won't be conservative. (Braunberger will get used to the temperament over multiple directors' commissions, cf. À bout de souffle.) The atmosphere is genial. "O seasons..." utters Rimbaud... Varda hasn't half-a-year or more for her project: she films autumn, the mutable season. Her speaker narrates the evolution of the castles' architecture across the centuries, from Château Montrésor to Langeais to Blois, to Villandry — it's at Montrésor that the models arrive.

What's happening? Well, Varda says in her 2007 Bonus (included on "Disc 2: Early Varda" in the Criterion Complete Films), it was a matter of bringing women in now who might stand in for the ladies of the early 20th century in their finery... A pastichey, or gimmicky, tactic? Of course not. By Varda's calculation, the 'last "ladies"' were the equivalent of this new 20th century social class, profession; additionally, the existence of the latter proves the once-proposed endurance of the strictures, ceremonies, and notion of The Court; it mustn't go unremarked that both they and the grounds-workers all sport châpeaux, hats, to rhyme with the châteaux; finally, perhaps, their presence predicts (to say "foreshadows" would seem less concertedly psychical) the 'use of the grounds' for all the photo-shoots, soirées de Maisons, cinema rentals, and vandalism-wandered-through, candlelit, in the parties of the children of Garrel, Assayas, Beatles...

Circa 1000: Fulk le Noir contre Thibault le Tricheur. — Like Resnais, Varda documents the traces of historical steps: e.g., the courtyard where Jeanne d'Arc stepped to her destiny.

"In Langeais, where Louis XI built, near the old dungeon, a fortified château..." — or, where Ronsard courted Cassandre Salviati — who "preferred her neighbor." I first came to know old Ronsard from the Gainsbourg song, "Ronsard '58" off SG's first record. My translation:

As long as you’ve got those handy assets, my dear, / You’ll have lovers, you’ll make it. / You’ll have vacations on the finest shores, / And bikinis that knock everyone out.

You’ll have vistas, you’ll have cars, / Well-dressed guys’ll scrape to kiss your hand. / You’ll flash smiles, you’ll play your role — / But you’ll only ever be a little whore.

Whore of the sidewalks, whore of the moviehouses. / For the guys in charge, it’s the same old shit — / You pay her price, you’re outta there. / She’s supposed to make love, and not a scene. / Besides, my excellent little babe, one fine day

You’ll realize you’re over it, / Then, sniveling, you’ll say, / Dumb-Ol’-Me / Had some talent as a writer after all.

That’s all you’ll have left of my pathetic lines, / My literature you didn’t give a flying shit about; / It’s all you’ll have left to remind you of the men, / Those past fuckwads of yours who’ll never look your way again; / It’s the only mirror you won’t be ugly in —

It’s guaranteed for eternity. / Good old Ronsard was no fool / When he said that to his stuck-up bitch — /
To his stuck-up bitch — to his stuck-up bitch. •

— Serge Gainsbourg, 1958, Du chant à la une!...

There's François I with Queen Claude in Blois — retaken by Charles d'Orléans, who in turn took up poetry and held competitions, to which contributed François Villon.

Clément Marot lived there.

In Villandry, "[t]he maze is hornbeam" (no article) — four quadrants: topiary representing tragic love, fickle love, tender love, and mad love (which makes another maze).

Agnès Varda, Sunday painter sublime.