Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

A while ago, I stumbled across the Mental Floss post “8 Forgotten Kids Shows Sure to Give You Nightmares.” One of the eight clips they link to is the “Mysterious Stranger” segment from “The Adventures of Mark Twain,” a 1980s stop-motion movie for children. The kids featured in the clip are Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher. (Was Tom described as a redhead in the books? I have a vivid mental image of him as a dirty-blond. The curly red thing threw me for a loop.)

I love this clip. I was so taken with it that I now, months later, have watched the rest of the movie. It’s a really strange piece of work. The kids go up with Mark Twain in this fanciful hot-air balloon-ship thing to find Halley’s comet. There’s a teleportation device, unicorns, Mr. Hyde alter-egos… Strange movie.

The “Mysterious Stranger” bit is still undeniably the best (and creepiest) part, but the whole thing is worth a view. I do, however, raise a quizzical eyebrow at the idea of marketing this to children. I am no fan of watering things down to a mush of inoffensiveness (I dearly miss the edgy “Sesame Street” of my childhood and lament the new direction the show has taken), but this is some serious grit for a kid to stomach.

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This is insane:

The Third & The Seventh

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Au hasard Balthazar

This movie had been sitting around on my desk for about three months. I had heard many great things about it, but I kept not being in the mood to watch it. Although I like to think of myself as Someone Of Taste — someone clever and intellectual who appreciates poetry and wisdom and culture and that gnarled, migrainy branch of philosophy that has absolutely no bearing on daily existence — nine times out of ten, I will pick the technicolor movie with the bad-ass soundtrack* over the slow, grim, B&W, biblical-allegory French film. My hesitance was only increased by the fact that I had already seen “Mouchette,” another film directed by Bresson. In other words, I knew very well what I was getting into.

I finally hunkered down and gave the gloomy little disk a go tonight. “Au hasard Balthazar” is beautiful. It is Art, but it’s the stirring, living, breathing kind, not the dead, passive, “analyze me” kind. It’s about the parallel lives of a donkey and a young girl named Marie, but of course it’s not really about that at all.

I love how the narrative was approached. The storyline is not hurled at your face like it’s the only thing that matters, but it’s also not ignored or obfuscated. It pieces itself together slowly as though you, the viewer, were living in the small town where the movie takes place, listening to gossip and spying through windows. Here, a murder hangs half-unresolved in the narrative’s periphery while the camera focuses on the foreground of the two lives it’s charting — the broken bottles, the kicked-up dirt, the hands and the feet, and the sad donkey eyes.

Incidentally, I never realized before just how beautiful and expressive a donkey’s eyes are.

This movie guided me towards that place that is the closest approximation of “religious” this not-so-religious girl experiences. I probably would have shed a tear or two, but I don’t cry during movies unless they’re “Stand By Me.”

*Okay, okay. Upon re-reading this post, I want to make it clear that I do think Schubert is bad-ass.

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“The Case Of The Bloody Iris” is a movie filled with so many stupid and cheesy moments that it’s impossible to list them all here (just an example: a bloody corpse is discovered in the elevator of a high-rise apartment building while the sun is still up; after several hours, the night has fallen, a woman tries to get into the elevator, and the corpse is still there, lying at the exact same spot – apparently none of the tenants cared enough to call the police). So I’ll just mention the two things that bothered me the most:

1) The dubbing is terrible. The actors who dubbed in the voices of the original cast sound so bored that you wonder if they even got paid for their work or it was simply forced upon them. There is barely ONE LINE that sounds right in this film.

2) Edwige Fenech is gorgeous but ridiculously wooden as Jennifer. She wears the same “scared” expression throughout. A totally bland “heroine”.

This IMDB user is someone who never should watch another 1970s Italian horror movie. Complaining about wooden acting, plot inaccuracies, and bad dubbing. Come on now. If I swallowed that thunderously cliché portrayal of the predatory lesbian, a body languishing in the elevator past its due-date shouldn’t hurt anyone. Aesthetics, Watson! It’s all about aesthetics. (And entertainment. It’s about entertainment too.)

I was once at a museum and asked the security guard which painting was his favorite. He pointed to a painting of a ship on a stormy sea and told me he liked it “because it looked real.” He was guarding a room, not writing hefty tomes on art history, so that’s okay. I remember a painting teacher I once had, the brilliant and elitist (but he knew what he was talking about) David Schoffman, a man who changed the way I looked at art, telling the class dismissively that “anyone can paint realistically. Complimenting a painter for painting realistically is like saying someone is a great writer for having flawless grammar.” (I’m not sure I’d go that far — and like almost anyone with a more than superficial interest in linguistics, I have a big long rant readymade about “proper grammar” — but point taken.)

David was the one who taught me to stand as close to a painting as I possibly could without getting yelled at by security guards to study brushwork. He also gave me permission to admit that Picasso had some shitty paintings and that Monet was not so great at composition (in other words, that these weren’t untouchable heroes beyond my grasp but were humans — extremely talented but not infallible). For the sake of comparison, he pointed out the neurotic attention to composition displayed by Degas, a man who added thin little strips of paper to his pastel drawings because otherwise it just wasn’t right. I also recall David telling us: “You want an easy job? Go to medical school. If you’re an artist, you have to compete with God. That means every time you paint, you’re trying to top the Pacific Ocean!” (Yeah. It’s no wonder that those days I saw the red apples of my still-life when I closed my eyes at night, shimmering, fading in and out, and gliding over each other like images printed on semi-sheer sheets.)

My point is that art, at its core, is not about flawless rendering. There are reasons one can have for not liking this breed of movie, including that you find wooden acting painful to watch, but assuming that every movie should have the aim of mirroring reality, or at least of not being obviously “fake,” is pretty ignorant. If you were to cast some deep/complex method actor in “The Case of the Bloody Iris,” the inclusion would be extremely jarring. The movie isn’t about character development or believability so why should you expect to find that in the acting?

I think by now I’ve linked almost everyone I know to this lecture, but I’m going to post it again anyway: The Artful Brain. It’s by V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor in the psychology department and neurosciences program at UC San Diego. The whole thing is interesting, but I especially wanted to draw attention to the bit about Tinbergen’s study.

Here’s the excerpt in question:

[….]you need to go and look at ethology, especially the work of Niko Tinbergen at Oxford more than fifty years ago. And he was doing some very elegant experiments on seagull chicks.

As soon as the herring-gull chick hatches, it looks at its mother. The mother has a long yellow beak with a red spot on it. And the chick starts pecking at the red spot, begging for food. The mother then regurgitates half-digested food into the chick’s gaping mouth, the chick swallows the food and is happy. Then Tinbergen asked himself: “How does the chick know as soon as it’s hatched who’s mother? Why doesn’t it beg for food from a person who is passing by or a pig?”

And he found that you don’t need a mother.

You can take a dead seagull, pluck its beak away and wave the disembodied beak in front of the chick and the chick will beg just as much for food, pecking at this disembodied beak. And you say: “Well that’s kind of stupid – why does the chick confuse the scientist waving a beak for a mother seagull?”

Well the answer again is it’s not stupid at all. Actually if you think about it, the goal of vision is to do as little processing or computation as you need to do for the job on hand, in this case for recognizing mother. And through millions of years of evolution, the chick has acquired the wisdom that the only time it will see this long thing with a red spot is when there’s a mother attached to it. After all it is never going to see in nature a mutant pig with a beak or a malicious ethologist waving a beak in front of it. So it can take advantage of the statistical redundancy in nature and say: “Long yellow thing with a red spot IS mother. Let me forget about everything else and I’ll simplify the processing and save a lot of computational labour by just looking for that.”

That’s fine. But what Tinbergen found next is that you don’t need even a beak. He took a long yellow stick with three red stripes, which doesn’t look anything like a beak – and that’s important. And he waved it in front of the chicks and the chicks go berserk. They actually peck at this long thing with the three red stripes more than they would for a real beak. They prefer it to a real beak – even though it doesn’t resemble a beak. It’s as though he has stumbled on a superbeak or what I call an ultrabeak.

Why does this happen?

We don’t know exactly why, but obviously there are neural circuits in the visual pathways of the chick’s brain that are specialized for detecting beaks as soon as the chick hatches. They fire when seeing the beak. Perhaps because of the way they are wired up, they may actually respond more powerfully to the stick with the three stripes than to a real beak. Maybe the neurons’ receptive field embodies a rule such as “The more red contour the better,” and it’s more effective in driving the neuron, even though the stick doesn’t look like a beak to you and me – or maybe even to the chick. And a message from this beak-detecting neuron now goes to the emotional limbic centres in the chick’s brain giving it a big jolt and saying: “Wow, what a super beak!” and the chick is absolutely mesmerized.

Well now what’s this got to do with art, you’re wondering?

Well this brings me to my punch line of about art. What I’m suggesting is if those seagulls had an art gallery, they would hang this long stick with the three red stripes on the wall, they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why – why am I mesmerized by this damn thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything? That’s what all of you are doing when you are buying contemporary art. You are behaving exactly like those gull chicks.

In other words human artists through trial and error, through intuition, through genius have discovered the figural primitives of our perceptual grammar. They are tapping into these and creating for your brain the equivalent of the long stick with the three stripes for the chick’s brain. And what you end up with is a Henry Moore or a Picasso.

The advantage of these ideas is you can test them experimentally. You can actually record from cells in the brain which sort of fire when you show it a face in the fusiform gyrus. Now some of them will fire only to a particular view of a face. But higher up you’ve got neurons which respond to any view of a given face. And I’m predicting that if you present a Cubist portrait of a monkey face – where you present two views of a monkey’s face in the same place – that cell will be hyper-activated. Just as the long stick with the three red stripes hyper-activates the beak-detecting neurons in the chick’s brain, this Cubist portrait of a monkey face will hyper-activate these face-detecting neurons in the monkey brain – and the monkey says: “Wow! What a face”. So what you have here is in fact a neural explanation for Picasso, for Cubism.

I was so excited when I heard that for the first time. It’s still a theory of course, but it potentially makes everything I ever thought about art make sense. Aestheticism hardwired into the brain! Yeah! Red tempera-paint blood is my seagull beak, guys.

Apologies if this has come across as pretentious or meandering. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Basically, I am a devoted lover of anything that is aesthetically interesting. If it’s rendered realistically, fantastic. If it’s not, wonderful. If it has some cultural significance or philosophical meaning, great, but it sure doesn’t need to. (I mean, beyond the cultural significance/philosophical meaning that anything has by virtue of just existing.)

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Bette and Richard

I recently commented to a friend that the only time leopard print is okay is when it’s on the frayed mini-skirt of some punk rocker. I would like to modify that remark to state that leopard print is also acceptable on divas like Bette Davis. So unless you’re coupling it with torn fishnets or you’re an absolute divalicious wonder (and don’t kid yourself if you’re not), seriously stay far away from leopard print.

This interview is amazing. Johnny Carson is a strong man for not jerking his head wildly in both directions to gawk at the two stars in disbelief, twitching all over like a fiend, collapsing on the floor short of breath, and stuttering “oh my god I can’t believe I’m here, I– I can’t believe I’m here” with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. That’s the only way I can imagine a normal person reacting to being in the same room as both Bette Davis and Richard Pryor.

Man, is that woman fantastic. Chaaaaarming. I don’t care what anyone says, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is a much better/scarier movie than “The Exorcist,” “The Shining,” “The Omen,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” etc., etc., etc. Positively bone chilling. The acting is impeccable. I remember vividly Bette Davis’ over-the-phone impression of Crawford’s voice– a dead ringer (so to speak, ha-ha).

Also, for those who like laughing and haven’t seen these Richard Pryor classics, here are some Richard Pryor classics:

An impression of kids lying that I’m not allowed to embed, apparently.

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Free to Be… You & Me

Some blessed soul on youtube has uploaded the entirety of “Free to Be… You & Me.” If you ever wondered how I learned to be so loving, accepting, socially-conscious, egalitarian, gluten-free and post-consumer recycled material… take a peek. The cast is crazy! Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Brooks, Marlo Thomas, Rosey Grier, Dionne Warwick, Harry Belafonte, etc. I remember when I saw the Atalanta bit as a kid, I was sad that she didn’t marry the guy; he seemed so nice! “When We Grow Up” and “It’s All Right to Cry” are genuinely very beautiful songs. Also, looking back, “Circle of Friends” was probably my first-ever exposure to what people look like when they’re really fucking high.

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I’d heard a lot about “Audition” for a very long time. Most of what I’d heard/read described it as a profoundly disturbing masterpiece. I liked it. But really? “Audition” was not profoundly disturbing* nor was it a masterpiece. I’d describe it, rather, as eerie and flawed-but-good.

The plot basically is: Shigeharu Aoyama’s wife dies. Years pass. Aoyama’s son tells him that he’s getting old and should remarry. Aoyama’s friend, a movie producer, stages an audition for a movie that may or may not ever be filmed. The purpose of this “audition” is to allow Aoyama to observe many interesting, talented women and to ask them questions. If there’s one he likes, he would then theoretically follow up with her. Before he ever even meets her, his interest is spiked by the resumé of Asami Yamazaki. However, none of the girl’s mentioned references exist. In fact, no one seems to know her. Aoyama’s friend thinks she’s creepy. And I’ll end this here.

What follows might be spoiler-ish, though I think I was decent at avoiding anything that’d ruin the movie: (more…)

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