Monday, April 30, 2012

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (Girard. 1993)

"My mother tells me that by five years old I had decided definitively to become a concert pianist. I think she had decided some time earlier."

Every audience is familiar with the idea of the biopic. Seemingly more so in recent times, studios have poured money into the life rights of almost any person with a somewhat interesting story. In the last ten years there have been movies made that visually narrate the stories of interesting figures ranging from Diane Arbus to George W. Bush. Though a biopic has an obvious purpose, to encapsulate a person's story, many of them go about telling the story in a secular, formulaic way. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould does not conform to these conventions, and I believe the film benefits from that.

I suppose the first thing I should do is fill any unknowing reader in on why Glenn Gould is important enough to warrant his own movie. Gould was a prodigy on the piano and became one of the biggest touring sensations in history. After a catastrophic rise to fame, the eccentric Canadian decided to abruptly retire and disappear into a life a seclusion to focus mainly on studio recordings. He was widely known, as seen in the film, for his many strange habits and ticks that included strict temperature regulation and audible groans while playing in the recording studio. Gould was also entirely afraid of human contact. He never shook hands and was often seen wearing gloves that supported his obsession with personal health. Long story short, Glenn Gould was a weird dude. He died at age 50 from complications after a massive stroke.

With a life story like that it is amazing that the average up, then down, then up again biopic formula was not used in making 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Rather, Girard choose, as the title implies, to split the narrative into 32 non-secular vignettes that range from his unhappiness as a child to his late-life infatuation with death. In an original twist, the movie switches between actual documentary with interviews from peers and a fictional depiction of his more unusual encounters where Gould is subtly played by Colm Feore. As Gould, Feore perfectly captures the mental obscurity that made the pianist so mysterious. In one interesting short, Gould can be seen passionately humming and conducting while listening to his own playback in the studio. Though his eyes are shut, his passion resonates through his face. I would hazard to say that, if you could see them on screen, his feet would be hovering slightly off the ground.

In the 20th of the vignettes, "Gould Meets McLaren", artist Norman McLaren illustrates a mesmerizing tribute over Gould's music. The scene is the only one that does not address a specific concept, yet it fits perfectly with the rest of the shorts due to how reminiscent it seems to be of Gould's mental state. In it, all we see are spheres moving, spinning or molding into one another. This, to me, must have been what it was like to look into the man's brain. Though it was always working, and making valuable art, the movement never stopped. And it became stronger and faster as the music dominated more of his life. 

My favorite short is the 9th one shown in the film, "The L.A. Concert". This early scene is a recreation of the faithful night that Gould retired from touring. In the same vein as The Beatles, Gould wanted to focus on making the music that he wanted to make. And though this was the start of a tragic downfall, the scene itself has an understated humor in the delivery. The world famous pianist announces he will no longer be touring by writing it in an autograph for an elderly fan. Feore's delivery in this scene is hilariously nonchalant. You would not guess that the main character in the film is making the decision that would have the greatest impact on his professional life. Instead, it is just another day in the absurd, somewhat selfish, office that is Gould's mind.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould dramatically opens with the title character standing, virtually undetectably, in the distance of the Canadian tundra. As the scene carries on in awkward silence, Gould gets closer with every second. Obviously symbolic, the audience reads this immediately to mean that they are about to witness an extremely personal film. That is what makes it stand out as a biopic. Usually after watching a retelling of a cultural figure's life you do not leave knowing anything more about the subject. But Girard was intent on leaving a deeper impression on the audience by switching the convention of normal storytelling. There are genuine moments of fantastic acting and drama mixed in with dark comedy and educational documentary. In the style lies the substance. Everything about Glenn Gould's music, life and mind would lead you to believe that he had substance in abundance.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: A- 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Animal Farm (Halas. Batchelor. 1954)

"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

I can still clearly remember my freshman year of high school and my Honors English class that was taught by the irreplaceable Ms. Banks. Near the end of the first semester the class was required to read a "classic" book that used personification to satirize the events leading to the Stalin revolution in Russia. As a novel, "Animal Farm" does not work for me due to extremely overly-simple reasons. Long story short, animals don't talk. They don't talk to other people , nor do that talk to each other. I get it, that is a dumb reason to hate something as universally acclaimed as the Orwellian classic. But nevertheless I have never been able to appreciate the novel - even after two more reads.

In 1954, Joy Batchelor and John Halas released the first feature-length animated film from the United Kingdom. What did they choose to make? The pair made an adult-themed, and adapted version of "Animal Farm" that has since become the most intriguing adaptation to be made from the story. The animation style has been described as "Disney for adults" and the message of the film is obviously extremely political. Was it meant to be for kids? Maybe. But I highly doubt it would entertain children in 2012.

The history of animation in film is a bit tricky. Walt Disney was making animated short films as far back as 1922, and live-action animation could be seen in foreign films like The Man With The Movie Camera in 1929. But, I guess, Britain was behind the times. It took the great filmmakers of that country almost 20 years after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to make a widely released animated film? Geez.

Not only does that seem strange, but the reasoning behind that making of Animal Farm has also been publicly pondered for many years. Multiple sources (including state that the entire project was funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to promote an anti-communist message in Europe. Whether this is true or not, I am not at liberty to cheapen the accomplishments of Batchelor and Halas. Animal Farm is a fine, and historically important, film. Though honestly, it is not great.

As stated earlier, I am not usually able to accept a story where animals talk to humans, but I have made some notable exceptions. For example, I have never had an issue with Scooby Doo. I think this is because, obviously, it is an animated film. That is okay with me. Do not ask me to sit through the live action version of the meddling teenagers, nor would I ever want to sit through the puppet version of Animal Farm. I guess an animated universe is detached enough for me to accept talking animals. The novel was focused in reality - and that was unappealing for me.

The story relies on animal's ability to communicate with other animals and humans alike. An aged pig named Old Major summons all of the farm animals to the barn and lectures them on their rights. He points out the extremely foul treatment they receive from their owner, Mr. Jones. He scolds them on the importance of staying true to each other and reminds them that all animals should be treated with respect. Old Major begins what he thought would be a revolution to de-thrown a tyrant and regain power for his kind. After teaching them "Beasts of England" he collapse dead in the barn. Now the revolution is in the hands of the livestock.

Because the novel is enormously famous, I will assume that I do not need to be overly-detailed about what happens next. The farm is taken back by the animals, basic rights are decided, Snowball the pig is ousted by the dictator-like, and aptly named, Napoleon who begins adjusting the rules to benefit himself and the rest of the pigs. See the satire? Pigs, notoriously greedy animals, are used to resemble communists. Strong stuff, Orwell.

One notable thing about Animal Farm is the fact that it is an incredibly violent animated movie. The fights between the animals and humans are long, frantic and include some blood and gun-violence. This supports my notion that it was not a film for children. It was initially rated X in England due to adult subject matter, but it has since be re-rated and deemed acceptable for a universal audience. This particular controversy, I believe, would have been embraced by Orwell. But sadly, I ultimately believe he would have dismissed the film after seeing the ending that directly contradicted his desire for satire.

Satire's biggest enemy in any medium is propaganda. In fact, the line between the two is often considered to be blurred. "Animal Farm" was written as straight satire. But the film version changed the story a bit and endorsed the animals' decision to violently overthrow Napoleon after he too aggressively steps over the line. The basis of Old Major's message was that all animals are equal, and that very phrase was painted on the barn for all to see. Eventually that amendment was altered to support the pig's selfish agenda. "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". Rather than ending it there, this version has the animals attack. Napoleon is presumably killed in the end. Is this a responsible message to be sending out? Stalin was a bad dude, but it seems like the CIA theory could have some merit.

At 72 minutes, Animal Farm is a very easy film to get through. It is entertaining enough, but it is not a stand-out film in my book. Important? Arguably, yes. But there have been better, more entertaining adult-themed animated films (ex. Fritz the Cat (1972)). Ultimately, I liked it better than I liked the novel, but I didn't love anything about it. Completely average - even for 1954.  

Animal Farm: B-

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ringu (Nakata. 1998)

"It's not of this world. It's Sadako's fury. And she's put a curse on us."

There are not very many instances where I will tell my readers that a book is actually better than the movie. In fact, that is a phrase that I have kept reserved for when they decide to make "The Catcher in the Rye" into a movie. Don’t get me wrong, books are fantastic and I read for pleasure on a regular basis, but there is usually something more vividly exciting about seeing things come to life on the screen. At least it is that way for me. What can I say? I love movies.

With all of that being said, Koji Suzuki’s novel version of "Ring" is leaps and bounds better than Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film adaptation. Though it is hailed, for some reason, as a quintessential example of J-Horror, Ring is one of the least scary horror films that I have ever seen. It is comically adapted for the screen and has more unfinished angles than the Winchester Mansion. I was going into watching Ring with an open mind and a hand over my eyes, but I ended up being extremely disappointed.

The novel tells the story of a male reporter named Kazuyuki Asakawa who, through stellar investigation, stumbles across a few similar mysterious deaths in Tokyo. Each death occurred at the same time on the same day with each victim’s face mangled with fear. After exploring the story further, he ends up at a weekend resort where he finds an unmarked video tape. Of course, he watches it. Suzuki describes the tape in much detail. There are swirling colors, volcanic eruptions and mysterious footage of realistic violence. The final moment of the tape reveals its purpose - “You, who watched this tape, are going to die in one week from now. There's only one way to survive. And that is-". The sentence stops there as a television commercial has been recorded over the tape. Now Asakawa must race against the clock to figure out how to break the curse. Novel on…

The film, however, chose to go with a female lead named Reiko Asakawa who begins investigating the mysterious deaths of, like in the novel, some teenagers. She does most of her reporting by talking to local school kids who seem to know a whole lot about a deadly cursed video tape. Here is my first issue with this adaptation - if all the kids in school already knew about the tape, why did anyone watch it? It was common knowledge in gossip circles what would happen if you did, but none of them felt the need to alert the police that this tape was going around? It took the spook factor out of the death tape.

Unlike in the novel, Asakawa does not accidentally watch the tape. Like I said, all the kids in school told Asakawa that the tape existed. So, like any reporter would do, she went looking for it. In the novel the tape is found by coincidence. In the film it is directly sought after and WATCHED by the hero. Why would she watch it?! She knows it will kill her, yet freaks out when the phone rings and alerts her of her impending demise.

Even the film version of the cursed tape is flawed in comparison to the novel. It consists of a man pointing, a woman brushing her hair in a mirror and what looks like people crawling on the ground. There are no subliminal messages, nor does any of the drama from the novel take place. It’s just a boring tape. Lord knows it is better than Blonde Cobra.

After copying the tape and showing it to her insistent ex husband, the journey to figure out how to break the curse is on. The seriousness is upped when the couple’s son accidentally watched the tape at his grandfather’s house. This is another part that really bothers me. Why would she just leave a cursed video tape in the VCR for her young child to stumble across and watch? This is a recurring theme in Ring – if you have a death tape, don’t leave it in the VCR!

They eventually solve the mystery and realize that the tape is a manifestation of a supernatural curse caused by a murdered girl named Sadako. In life, Sadako was an outcast due to her seemingly evil superpowers. Her father killed her and abandoned her dead body in a deep well. The couple finds the body – breaking the curse, or so they thought….

Aside from the stupid plot, Ring does have some shining aspects to boast. For example, I loved Nakata’s direction and the snappy cinematography that Japan would later become known for using. The film is shot as if it were the antithesis of Scream. There are no tight screens or jump scares. Rather, Ring tries to frighten the audience with dim lights, low-grade special effects and a lulling musical score. Of course, I would hazard to guess that Ring fails at frightening almost anyone, but the simple horror approach is still refreshing to see – especially nowadays.

Then we have THE scene in Ring. You know, the one where the spirit crawls through the television? This was a moment that I was anticipating with a pillow to cover my eyes. As Sadako climbs up the well and through the television screen I was only able to think of one thing. The remake did this scene better than the original. Maybe at this point I was already too fed up with the vagueness of the adapted screenplay, but I did not care at all when the biggest scene in the movie finally happened. It was like waking up on Christmas day and realizing it is actually Arbor Day. I didn’t care at all.

There is something inherently begging to fail about a movie that centers on a cursed VHS tape. For one, it is not like the thing is required viewing. Don’t wanna die? Don’t watch the tape. Also, why would a murdered child use a VHS tape to spread her curse in the first place? While alive Sadako was powerful enough to kill people with her mind, yet in death she is reduced to technology that was barreling toward being outdated? I just don’t buy it. A good horror movies should make you believe. Ring made me giggle. It's too bad those kids couldn't have waited a few years to die. This never would have happened with a DVD...

In terms of films that I was eager to watch from the big list, Ring has to be one of the biggest disappointments so far. At only a little over an hour and a half, the film is rushed but never seems urgent. It lacks the necessary development of characters to make me want to care, and completely changes the very things from the novel that make the story work. It was jumbled, choppy and lacked important detail. I was really bummed about this one. I wanted to love it. I did not...

Ring: C-

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Meshes of the Afternoon (Deren. Hammid. 1943)

"It reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience." - Maya Deren

In my research, I am yet to find a concrete description about what takes place in Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s surrealist classic Meshes of the Afternoon. At a little over 13 minutes long, the film is one of the most famous examples of American avant-garde, experimental filmmaking. The, then, husband and wife dynamic directorial duo was primarily interested in making a film in the style of the European surrealists from the 20s. As crucified as I may be for writing this, they managed to surpass their influences with one of the most thought provoking short films I have ever seen.

Saying that any surrealist film is better than An Andalusian Dog may be bold, but the fundamental difference is the thought being provoked by the story. Dali and Buñuel were not interested in a secular narrative. And though that may be the bare bones of surrealism, it passes through a person’s attention span at a much more rapid pace. Watching the pure-experimental-avant-surreal is all about remembering that nothing has meaning. Or at least that is how Dali looked at it. Audiences are prone to be desperate for meaning. That is the concept being played with…

But Meshes of the Afternoon seems to have some kind of substance behind it. In fact, Deren has been quoted as saying that the film is not meant to be completely surreal, there is a theme, but the audience has to find it. Could that be a copout? Yeah, it could be. But I was personally swept away in the film’s circular narrative. The best I can do is tell you what physically happens on the screen followed by my personal interpretation of the action. Remember, this is a personal movie experience that may not be the same as how you reacted to the film. The fact that so many different narratives have been suggested for a 13 minute short film only furthers my belief that there is meaning hiding in there somewhere.

On the surface we see a woman, played by the freaking gorgeous Deren, walking into her house amongst a variety of heavily, symbolically emphasized items including a flower on a long driveway, a key falling, a door unlocked and a knife. Almost immediately after opening her door, she stretches out on a chair and falls asleep. In her dream the audience is reintroduced to the symbolism as the key and knife interchangeably transform into each other. Deren, in a repetitive allusion, can be seen placing the key in and removing it from her mouth.

At this point in Meshes there is no real way of attaching the pieces to make sense. She is asleep, dreaming and obviously disjointed. Then a man in a long black cloak arrives and is pursued by Deren. The man is shadowed and has a mirror as a face. He is then seen putting the knife under a pillow on the right side (the female side) of the bed. When she cannot injure or identify the man, Deren takes the knife and kills the dreaming version of herself. This is the in-and-out of fantasy and reality that makes the film surreal. After the death of her dream-self, a man (Hammid) appears and lifts the now alive her out of the chair before walking upstairs. Thinking that he is the Grim Reaper-esque man, she tried to shatter his mirror. Shortly after this, the same man walks in to find Deren to be, in reality, dead.

That is what you will see if you venture over to and watch Meshes. But what does it mean? I am willing to take a shot at it – I hope you are willing to go with me…

She walks into her house and falls asleep. Her dreams consist of illusions as she swiftly glides through her home. She is light, careless and relaxed. This is until she sees the cloaked man. Obviously meant to represent death, the man has a mirror for a face. When Deren, who attempted desperately to see his face, looks into the eyes of the “Reaper” she sees her own reflection. She IS death. The cloaked man puts the knife under a pillow on the stereotypically female side of a couple’s bed. To me, this screams lover’s quarrel. As she begins to reappear in her own unconscious you can almost feel the pressure of the situation pressing down over her head. When her boyfriend or husband walks into the apartment, he heads straight to the bed. She tries to hurt him, but the screen switches to shattered glass. Or, a broken mirror. If she is death, and she killed death, she is now dead. And her willingness to kill herself was brought on by Hammid’s character. She then, for lack of a better word, physically kills herself by sticking the symbolic knife into her own chest. She has killed herself over a man, and the film is primarily her visions as she drifts into the afterlife…..maybe?

Gosh, in written form that all seems so complicated.

Even if I am way off, it is interpretation that makes Meshes of the Afternoon such an interesting film. There is a chance that nothing significant is actually happening at all, but the meshing between dream and reality have never been thinned more by a movie. Deren and Hammid made a 13 minute film that people have been dissecting for almost 70 years. So little action may never again inspire so much thought in an audience. No matter how you feel about the movie - that is a pretty awesome thing to think about…

Meshes of the Afternoon: A

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blonde Cobra (Jacobs. 1963)

“God’s not dead…He’s just marvelously sick.”

Ken Jacobs is an experimental filmmaker and theory teacher who is still making movies to this day. He was an art teacher to the monumentally influential Art Spiegelman and is sometimes credited for coining the term “paracinema” – though that changes depending on your source. Whether he invented the term or not, paracinema seems to be the wheelhouse in which Jacobs lives. It is a word that literally stands for any type of film that is outside the conventional genres in filmmaking. In Jacobs’ personal favorite genre, experimental avant-garde, paracinema also means any film made without the standard equipment of the film medium. If this essay-like opening paragraph is boring you, I guarantee the subject matter of Ken Jacobs’ 1963 Blonde Cobra will lighten the mood.

I almost feel strange referring to Blonde Cobra as an actual movie as opposed to a home video of two perverts talking about penises. See, I told you it would pick-up. It is set in a cramped apartment and shot with a single camera in grainy and unpleasant looking black and white. It “stars” a fellow experimental filmmaker, Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures), as himself in silly costumes while holding icky looking props. The motives for the movie are almost impossible to figure out. If I had to guess, I would say that these are two bored, eccentric homosexual filmmakers in the early 60s who are doing nothing more than looking for a way to torment the suits. There does not seem to be a point to anything in the film, rather Jacobs fills the half an hour runtime with controversial and offensive voiceovers behind strange images or completely blank screens.

There is no secular narrative presented in the film. Instead, Jacobs split his work into three short vignettes featuring Smith as different characters usually in drag or some other goofy costume. The first short in the film has Smith dressed in the manner of a fortuneteller and displays the behavior of someone with an intense oral fixation. This dialogue-less action includes Smith licking raw poultry and features a voiceover that describes cases of sexual molestation to children and necrophilia. The best I can do is say I THINK that is what they’re talking about, but it is almost impossible to understand what they are saying. Most of these stories, including one particular moment in which Smith describes a female’s use of religious statues for masturbation, are said over a blank, black screen. You’d think that a visual break from the action would be kinda nice, but the narration might even be more graphic. It is certainly more offensive.

The next “scene” has Smith and another man dressed as 1920s-esque gangsters as they dance to what sounds like (but don’t quote me on it) the Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire version of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. I would think that this scene holds the key to Blonde Cobra even being on this list of films. Pop music in film was a brand new concept in the 1960s. And though many credit The Graduate for the use of a pop music soundtrack, Jacobs and Smith were using recordings in their films as early as 1957. Jacobs’Blonde Cobra, Smith’s Flaming Creatures and, of course, Anger’s Scorpio Rising were all released between 1963-64 and unknowingly serve as the first examples of unlicensed music in film.

And then, after all of that excitement, there is another vignette. This time we have Smith dressed as an explorer of some kind. He and another man rub themselves on all sorts of different apartment props. Smith can be heard saying that sex is “a pain in the ass”. Other than that, nothing really happens.

Maybe the most famous line in the film is said in the first act. Mid-sentence, Smith stops and turns to the camera. With a completely serious demeanor you can hear him say – “I don’t know if this makes sense to you”. I can assure you that the film does not make any sense at all. Not in the way that a surrealist like Buñuel doesn’t make sense, but more in the way that a sleep deprived, gay crack-addict probably doesn’t make sense. I eventually came to realize that looking for a motive or a point in Blonde Cobra is an exercise in futility. The film is pointless.

It would be wrong to say that Blonde Cobra has absolutely no cultural importance. Jacobs and Smith are both very famous in the gay, New York underground film scene. Somebody somewhere likes this stuff. And like Tarantino makes movies for a niche of people – these men made their films for a much smaller sample of the same thing. If you are not part of the particular audience – Blonde Cobra will mean nothing to you. Honestly, it’s a piece of crap.

Blonde Cobra: F

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird (Muilligan. 1962)

"You can shoot all the blue jays you want, but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

To Kill a Mockingbird is, maybe more so than any other movie, an inspiring encapsulation of a romanticized "simpler time" in the American South. Based on the enormously famous novel by Harper Lee, the film focuses on a white family in a prejudice small town in Alabama. I just recently had the privilege of watching the 50th Anniversary showing of the film on the USA Network and that experience reminded me why it is such a classic.

Before the movie began, the at-home audience was treated by a short introduction by the current President of the United States – Barack Obama. This alone should show you the importance of a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird. I feel safe saying that you will never see a United States President giving a nationally televised introduction to Billy Madison (1995). In his speech, President Obama praised the film by saying that it brought to life “courage”, “conviction” and that it showed the American people the importance of doing “what is right”. He also praised the character of Atticus Finch by calling him “one of the greatest heroes in American cinema”.

As a child, I was confused by Atticus. I was raised in a professional wrestling-loving household. Therefore, my experiences with good and evil usually ended with the good guy on top. Nobody could tarnish the tough machismo of Stone Cold Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan. These men were my heroes. Atticus was beatable. He seemed almost too human for the screen. And then he jobbed, if you will, to the bad guy in the courtroom. I could not help but wonder how losing made a man such an inspiration.

Fast-forward about 10 years and Atticus Finch is now one of my all time favorite fictional characters in any form of media. A lawyer, Finch agrees to defend an obviously innocent African American man, Tom Robinson, against a malicious and fabricated rape case. A white girl, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), was severely beaten by her father after she tried to seduce the black Robinson. Though this is made obvious to the audience very early on, the all white jury sees things differently and believes (or at least comes to the verdict) that Robinson must have raped and beaten her. How could a white woman be attracted to a black man? In Depression-era Alabama? That is unheard of…

Tom Robinson is a character that singlehandedly raises social awareness with his limited, yet powerful, dialogue. Maybe his most memorable moment, Tom answers why he allowed Mayella to come onto him – “I felt sorry for her” he says. Keep in mind the time and place in which the movie is set, but that does not mean the line loses power to a 1962 or even a 2012 audience. When he looks at the all white jury and utters those words the conclusion of the trial can be seen written in the eyes of the jurors. How dare this man “feel sorry” for a white woman who is repeatedly beaten by her father to the point of submission?

Of course, we all know how the trial ends. Tom is wrongfully found guilty. His defender, Atticus Finch, has lost the case that he ever so bravely accepted. This heart-wrenching moment culminates with all of the African-American men and women in the balcony seats standing with respect for Atticus' effort. It is in this moment that we are treated to the famous scene of Peck’s Atticus walking out of the courtroom to a silent ovation. The reverend of the black community looks down at Atticus’ daughter, Scout, and lovingly calls her by her real name – “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing”. I have to admit, I immediately felt my eyes swelling up with tears during this moment. It is raw, sad, tragic and yet overwhelmingly inspirational. Atticus is not ready to give up on Tom’s case. Sadly, Tom dies before any attempt can be made at an appeal.

No, Atticus Finch does not win his court case, but he is still a hero. A hero is a man who fights evil even against devastating odds. That is Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird uses Finch as an example of the right way to act. He is noble man who, without powers, fights injustices in the world. The character was named the #1 greatest hero in American film by the American Film Institute, and though that decision was controversial it also proved that a man can make an impact with something other than his testosterone.

To Kill a Mockingbird does not only serve as a compelling courtroom drama, but it also centers around young children. Scout is the tough, tomboy daughter of Atticus. She is vastly ahead of her classmates in subjects like reading, yet is prone to throwing punches at the drop of a hat. Mary Badham was, obviously, just a child when she portrayed Scout on the screen. But her performance is seeping with inspiration. Scout has a surface level toughness about her, yet she also seems fragile and naive. I mean, she is being played by an Oscar nominated 10 year old, but the fragility still aluminates from her body language and voice.

In one of the film’s least-believable moments, Scout is able to stop a lynch mob with her child-like naiveté. Honestly, this may be the ONE scene in the film that threw me off. I am supposed to believe that, in Depression-era Alabama, a young girl could shame an entire town of racist whites out of the lynching of a black man accused of interracial rape? C’mon, Harper Lee! That is the romantic “simpler time” I referred to earlier.

It would be silly to write about To Kill a Mockingbird without mentioning the young Robert Duvall as the mysterious, and seemingly very violent, Boo Radley. Boo is the center of the “coming of age” subplot as the children speculate over his gruesome appearance. It was said that Boo’s father chained him to the bed to keep him from acting out. He also was forced into confinement by his parents at some point. None of these claims are ever verified in the film, but they are also the claims of young, bored children in a pre-internet age. Stories make life interesting with the ending of each story serving as a resolution. Boo gets his resolution in a moment that is both confusing and strangely rewarding.

All in All, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a timeless film. The characters are rich with meaning, the battle lines between races are boldly drawn and the musical score is inspirational and moving. Being released in 1962, the film directly predates the turbulent Civil Rights Movement and has been made a staple in the decade’s viewing library. It is an incredibly important film that each person involved should be proud of…

To Kill a Mockingbird: A

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jarmusch. 2003)

"Cigarettes and coffee, man, that's a combination."

While watching the opening scene of Coffee and Cigarettes it became obvious that something was off. Though the release date was said to be in 2003, the style, tone, fashion and vocabulary all seemed strangely 90s-esque. This was noticeable in a few of the film’s most memorable scenes, and it almost distracted me at times. As soon as it was over, I rushed to IMDB to see if anybody else noticed the time lapse. As it turns out, Jim Jarmusch had been filming and editing Coffee and Cigarettes for as long as I have been alive.

The film itself is black and white and cut into several theatric shorts that center on the conversations that people have together while enjoying coffee and cigarettes. The glaring outdated fashion and lingo is explained by the fact that Jarmusch used some scenes for the movie that he filmed as early as 1986. Though Coffee and Cigarettes lacks any sort of flowing narrative, it does feature some working short scenes that star recognizable figures giving great performances. Each miniature movie has a different spin on “table talk” that ranges from private and silent to competitive. The human study that partners with the film is whelming.

My personal favorite short has the humorously self-aware title “Jack Shows Meg his Tesla Coil” and stars Jack and Meg White as themselves. Seeing this early clip of The White Stripes interacting is a testament to their awkwardness. The scene, which perpetuates the band’s “sibling” relationship, is filled with band motifs and almost ventures into feeling surreal. The “brother and sister” are sitting around the table over coffee and cigarettes while Jack pays special attention to a Tesla coil that he has built. After Meg finally acknowledges it, he goes on to spew intellectual over the achievements of Nikola Tesla until his version of the coil mysteriously breaks down. I am not honestly sure how interested The White Stripes really are in high voltage, low current, high frequency alternating current electricity, but Jarmusch would lead the audience to believe that it was very important to the band.

The White Stripes are not the only musicians to star in a Coffee and Cigarettes vignette. Iggy Pop and Tom Waits star together as themselves in the Short Film Palme d'Or winning “Somewhere in California”. Filmed in 1993, it consists primarily of a conversation between the two rock icons in a coffee shop. In a humorous moment, the two agree that smoking just one cigarette is fine because it is a habit they have both kicked. As the conversation escalates, the two begin to act in a bit of a pissing contest over who has the most songs on the diner’s old jukebox. As it turns out, neither is represented at all. The conversation between these two men is epically engaging. Though they seem to be talking about nothing, their interactions tell another story. Here, on screen, the audience has two rock and roll legends goofing off and noticeable having fun with one another. It is certainly neat to see…

But maybe the best of the vignettes is also easily the funniest and features Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina as themselves. In the skit, Molina has invited Coogan to his home in Los Angeles where he learns of a distant connection that makes the two British actors cousins. This means a great deal to Molina as he uses this information to try and make a career connection out of a resistant Coogan. The banter between the two men is perfectly awkward and has a slow pacing that increases the subtle humor. The contrast between the two actors’ emotions is particularly hilarious – with Molina being giddy with joy and excitement over the news as Coogan rolls his eyes and pushes away from the situation.

In the end, Coffee and Cigarettes is a showing of a particular style that may not resonate with every audience. It is black and white, simply shot, slowly paced and features nothing but unimportant dialogue that ultimately tells us nothing about the world. At its core, I think the film explores the concept of conversation between two or more people while using the socially conventional coffee and cigarette as ice breakers.

It is amazing what people start to talk about when they have something to sip or something to put their lips on. In terms of a study on behavior, Coffee and Cigarettes is a fictionalized exploration into the concept. That alone is entertaining enough. With great performances and engaging topics, the film is a formidable option for causal movie fans.

Coffee and Cigarettes: B-