alice doesn’t live here anymore

alice hyatt’s life has gone all wrong. her marriage has collapsed. her son, tommy, is a smartass. her direction in life is all screwed up. and, as if things couldn’t get worse, alice has a sparkle of ambition. the lucky part is that she has the gumption to make it all work out in the end.

ellen burstyn plays alice, one of those rare characters who come to symbolize a certain kind of struggle. alice shows how the single mother can use her wits and talent to push through ridiculous circumstance. she also shows us how we are all flawed in our desperate attempts to find happiness in those around us.

first there is ben (a very young looking harvey keitel), the peppy and ill-tempered guy who patrons the bar she finds work singing at. unfortunately, ben is a sleazebag who likes to break things. alice keeps on trucking.

next comes a small town diner where alice gets a job waitressing. two things come from this – a tv sitcom that spins off of the film, and the strong acting of kris kristofferson as david. david is a bit of a drunk, though he is more kindhearted than the other men in alice’s life. alice wants a piece of happiness, a calm life filled with caring people. this struggle keeps her in the midst of unhappiness.

it’s the dialogue that makes the characters so real. like this one from tommy while he’s unsuccessfully trying to milk a cow under the criticism of david:

“bullchrist! she’s got tits the size of cucumbers. what do you expect?”

martin scorsese’s 1974 film is a real triumph. i’m struggling to think of a film predating alice with a strong female protagonist who goes through real life shit. regardless, scorsese sure knew how to throw them out in the 70s. and the 80s. and gangs of new york was ok.

ellen burstyn manages to make alice believable, charming, funny, and endearing. it’s incredible that this is the same woman who, 26 years later, would play outrageously messed up sara goldfarb in requiem for a dream. it’s no wonder she won the best actress oscar for alice, but i’m still wondering how she was robbed for requiem.

nicholas nickleby and much gushing over dickens

my love of dickens goes back to high school. in grade twelve we read the mystery of edwin drood, dickens’ last unfinished novel. our task was to write an ending to it. what a strenuous and rewarding task. how rich the language, how thick the social commentary. regardless of the predictability of a dickensian plot-curve, i cannot help but feel enveloped by his sense of narrative and his striking turn of the phrase. he is a social satirist without equal, and i readily admire his prose. take the opening of bleak house – there is nothing its equal. if you disregard dickens completely, at the very least read the first few paragraphs of this masterwork. you cannot deny the brilliance. i am a terribly cynical and sarcastic man, and i unabashedly adore dickens.

LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

how can one not disappear, consumed by the wealth of detail and voracious quality of such writing? i always have the sense that great art should invoke in me a feel of hunger, and dickens does not fail to provoke such ravenousness.

the 2002 film version of nicholas nickleby manages to succeed at bringing to screen dickens’ thick and thoughtful prose. it captures the melodrama, while honing in on the nuances that mark dickens’ writing. jim broadbent (as wackford squeers) and christopher plummer (as ralph nickleby) inspire in us such loathing, such depraved insolence, that their performances are worthy of nothing less than standing applause. they play horrible men wonderfully.

charlie hunnam embraces the righteous and loving character of nicholas nickleby in a way that has us all yelling in moral indignation. and, perhaps most brilliantly of all, jamie bell shows us the agony of young smike, a boy bashed down by both disability and love. if bell’s performance does not make you feel, then you have no heart.

while the period pieces of m’lady jane austen make us pleasantly euphoric, the social satires of dearest dickens leave us somewhat weary and warmed by the success of his protagonists and the degradation (or death) of his evil capitalists and cruel imprisoners.

this is a wonderful film to press upon anyone (especially your children), and a great success by its director douglas mcgrath and multi-talented cast. equally importantly, you witness the annoyingly adorable alan cumming do a scottish dance, timothy spall as a tenderheart, and the irrepressible (who else can own that title?) nathan lane as himself.

punch drunk love

yet another film i kick myself for not seeing on the big screen! i should have known better. i did know better. but i was busy as hell when punch drunk love came out. i remember how the visuals really made magnolia, and swore i would only watch pt anderson films in the theatre.

what can be said about this one? it succeeded at firmly raising my blood pressure for 95 minutes. and i mean this as a compliment. adam sandler is viciously real as small-time entrepreneur barry egan. barry has seven older sisters and has serious personality problems. while he has immense confidence in some regards, he has profound anger management issues (was this character a dry-run for sandler’s later work with jack nicholson?). barry is so mentally screwed up from having so many sisters intrude on every aspect of his personal life that he doesn’t trust anyone. he is evasive and, ultimately, destructive.

it is always a good bet to have a comedian play a dark character. look at jim carey in cable guy (a film that was unecessarily slagged). comedians seem to know how to pull up all that vile stuff and put it to good use. they are introspective and thoughtful. at least the good ones seem to be. i’m really glad sandler was given a role worth his skill. it’s about time.

emily watson is wonderful as lena leonard, who is nearly as fucked up as barry. she too suffered at the intrusive hands of too many siblings. and she had to endure a name like lena leonard. no wonder she doesn’t have a problem with the disturbing pillow talk adam sandler uses. she’s just as likely to dish it out herself, her capacity for inter-personal relationships also slightly damaged.

rounding out the cast are luis guzmán and pt anderson regular philip seymour hoffman. guzmán does a nice job as barry’s lackey, adding some wonderful naive-style humour. seymour hoffman, on the other hand, delivers a typically great performance as a total creep who drives the plot of the film along.

the first thing i thought after watching this was how smart it was for anderson to make a break from his ensemble casts and get back into the heads of a few select characters as he did with hard eight. i think punch drunk love displays how anderson has finely honed his skills over the course of the past several films. anderson regulars came through again: jon brion’s off-kilter score and robert elswit’s typically solid cinematography helped make this film carry the right tone for its subject matter. was it jeremy blake that did those tasty colour fields that transitioned between scenes? my oh my those were delicious.

i’m excited as hell to see what troubled characters under tremendous strain he comes up with next. anderson is one of the few directors who could even make me write a sentence like that.

night of the iguana (1964)

a quick witted, sharp tongued film directed by john huston, based on the tennessee williams play.

richard burton plays lawrence shannon, previously known as rev. dr. lawrence shannon. the film opens with shannon at the pulpit preaching to a full congregation. his monologue quickly turns abusive as he turns on his flock, accusing them of being nothing more than rumour mongers that have turned against him. apparently the good reverend has a past involving a weakness for young women and strong drink.

the film switches scenes to show us shannon working as a tour guide in mexico. his current contract has him toting around a busload of do-gooders led by the cantankerous judith fellowes (grayson hall). this time it is the young and pretty charlotte goodall (sue lyon) that is messing up shannon’s mind with desire. he is a man on the brink of caving in again to his emotional needs and physical urges. he spends the bulk of the film trying to sustain the belief that he is a man of god, although he is well aware that charlotte is enough to have him permanently defrocked.

things shift dramatically when hannah jelkes (deborah kerr) and her grandfather nonno (cyril delevanti) make an entrance. the movie becomes more concerned with the nature of human relationships and the concept of love. this combination of wit and drama illustrates what wise selections were made in casting. but no matter how meditative or dramatic there is still great humour:

hannah jelkes: “there are worse things than chastity, mr. shannon”

lawrence shannon: “yes, lunacy and death.”

the noble savage attitude dates the film, but otherwise it is held up with quick dialogue, colourful characters, and lively acting. the strong, independent female character maxine faulk (ava gardner) is most memorable.

immediately i was struck by how this movie should be remade with russell crowe as shannon, and someone like susan sarandon as judith. i’m not sure which actress of the moment would play charlotte or what firecracker could play maxine (salma hayek?).

however, a quick peek in the imdb shows that it was already remade in 2001 by predrag antonijevic. and guess who it starred? jeremy irons.

werckmeister harmonies

béla tarr again brings us intimate filmmaking filled with stark beauty. werckmeister harmonies is an effort that brings us the peculiar and haunted character of jános (lars rudolph), a young man who dreams of elsewhere and stands in awe of the world’s creations.

at 145 minutes it is substantially shorter than his previous effort, satantango. because of the way tarr approaches filmmaking, with emphasis on characterization and inner contemplation, werckmeister harmonies feels too short. not that it is incomplete, mind you. it’s simply that tarr’s universe is an addictive one. i remember the incredible feeling i had for days after first watching satantango years ago. at something like seven hours in length, satantango was an experience that engulfed me entirely, changing my visual perception. an epiphany. a metamorphosis. a subtle shifting of my neurons.

seeing béla tarr in person, hearing him speak of his concept of filmmaking after satantango, impressed upon me the importance of his work and philosophy. people speak of tarr in the same tones as andrei tarkovsky, and for good reason. they share a visual language and both explore the human search for meaning, presenting images that permanently append themselves to your mind. while we watched satantango tarr spent most of the time walking the rainy streets of vancouver. he commented on how much he enjoyed the walk, which is telling of his visual sensibilities.

his films are dark, described as ‘apocalyptic’. in harmonies, an old man, naked and frightened, stands alone after a brutal attack on a hospital. drunks are directed in an explanation of how the earth and moon orbit. quietness. footfalls on dark streets. creation. destruction. the nature of humanity. while his films could be ‘apocalyptic’, they can also act as reassuring reminders of the many facets of existence and our struggles to cope with them. it is not our success that marks us, but our continuance in that struggle.

his past two films are based on novels by lázló krasznahorkai. i’d like to track these down if english translations exist in order to better understand how tarr approaches the translation between text and image.

béla tarr, in one of his good humoured comments, spoke of how he would probably continue to make the same film over and over again throughout his career. to many filmmakers this sentiment would be demeaning, but to tarr it seems as though it is a commentary on the complexity of the individual, and the impossibility of truly capturing their entire being on film. if he keeps making the same films repeatedly it only means that i will have many years of cinema to look forward to.

derrida and chomsky

derrida is a terribly funny man. directors kirby dick and amy ziering kofman capture a thoughtful and amusing side of the thinker in their documentary bearing his name.

the film opens with derrida rummaging about his apartment in search of his keys. this focus on the everyday, the unglamourous, world of the much flaunted philosopher is refreshing. it is these moments that ground his ideas in the realm of daily life.

while there are moments of cinematic posturing and pretension, derrida’s delightful personality is what makes this film necessary viewing.

john junkerman’s power and terror: noam chomsky in our times, by contrast, is a much more serious effort with substantially graver subject matter. the primary difference between these films is that chomsky is a somewhat monotonous subject. what i mean is that to listen to chomsky talk at length is to feel waves of sleep come over oneself. while i gladly read his books and enjoy the mental barrage of his research, recordings of him speaking are virtually unlistenable. it was a struggle to keep my eyes open during some of the longer segments of this film.

however, beyond my inability to sustain attention to chomsky’s speech, the content of what he discusses is invigorating. his scope and focus are earnest and intense, and his fearlessness to engage unpopular subject matter is impressive. i recall after the world trade center disaster that chomsky was one of the first loud voices of reason on the matter. it is for this i put toothpicks in my eyelids and work through his words. if he could learn to modulate his voice a little more i think it would greatly assist his cause.

kissinger on trial

eugene jarecki has done us all a service with the trials of henry kissinger. beyond looking at kissinger’s record in cambodia, east timor and chile, this film asks the big questions about how we should perceive war crimes and diplomats. the film follows in the steps of christopher hitchens’ condemnations of kissinger in his articles and book, and features plenty of footage of hitchens railing against kissinger. hitchens is a compelling character, and makes a strong argument throughout. you don’t get the sense that hitchens is being petty, either. he is a man possessed with demonstrating the hypocrisy behind the history of american foreign policy and the ego of kissinger.

jarecki makes us reassess the concept that statesmen must choose between evils – that they are somehow above the law when they directly affect the lives of thousands (or millions) of people. as well, the film forces us to question why american politicians can be held to a different standard than those elsewhere in the world (the case recent cases against milosevic and pinochet are good examples).

because kissinger operated at a different time in history, when his breed of realpolitik allowed for more flexible morals and ethics, should he be allowed to escape the ramifications of his actions? should we continue to condemn the past, rather than setting guidelines for the future? the film does not broach this point, but insists that politicians should be held to the same laws as the rest of us.

another interesting concept is that since the late 60s the media eye has penetrated deeper into the daily machinations of political decision making. i think this film is a lesson to all of those operating in washington right now. they are not beyond the law or the careful gaze of your people – and can no longer operate in a moral vacuum, under the invisible guise of backroom deals and personally motivated power plays.

suspension of disbelief

passed by a film set today on the walk to work. some new flick with david duchovny. they turned the incendio pizza joint on the corner of columbia/alexander into something else, and erected a strange looking wall to hide the train tracks. there are tropical trees so i’m assuming its in california or florida. passed by a set car with illinois plates and a bunch of well-placed crap on the dashboard.

mock locations, props galore, and heavy makeup. i can completely understand why the dogme 95 thing started (the irony of course being that the anti-movement always becomes an establishment itself).

i love movies, but walking by them all the time around my workplace makes me queasy. such excess – the astounding effort expended to suspend our disbelief for a few moments entertainment escape.

tales of the wind

spent many hours at the pacific cinematheque absorbing several documentary films by the late, great joris ivens. a tale of the wind is a sort of autobiographical piece, weaving metaphor and the fantastic. joris’ love of film and of life is pure inspiration.

his early films, the bridge, rain, industrial symphony, new earth, and misère au borinage are all visual feasts. his cut rate is frenetic, something i hadn’t expected. the silent films are glorious. the annoying part is listening to either the people complaining about the lack of sound or the yahoos in the projection room yapping it up. take your pick.

the spanish earth, narrated by hemingway, reads like classic propaganda. it is a great film, and is necessary watching to follow up your reading of orwell’s homage to catalonia.

there aren’t enough words to describe the 17th parallel, iven’s film about the vietnam conflict. it was filmed while he and his co-director/wife marceline loridan lived with the vietnamese people. aurally, the film is a constant bombardment of american armament falling on vietnam. one of my favourite scenes is when the vietnamese are describing how useful a supersonic jet is to them. this is followed by a shot of a man taking some bolts from the wreckage and using them to repair his bicycle rear wheel. this film is an absolute must for anyone, anywhere, who wants to understand war.

2001: a space odyssey

tonight i watched 2001: a space odyssey for the first time since i was 8 or 9 years old. i’ve always remembered the film fondly, knowing the impact it has had on me in all sorts of ways. it is the first non-cartoon film i remember clearly. while watching it tonight i could anticipate the scenes coming up, the small details, kubrick’s beauty having burnt itself into my head. the way these things can affect us is astounding.

i don’t recall the ligeti pieces in the score specifically, though i recall my young ears being amazed at the sound of the film. at the time ligeti was not any kind of ‘music’ as i recognized it, but rather incredible and haunting soundscape.

this evening brought me back to a heady few hours of my youth – bringing back the first time i remember feeling completely cooked by cinema.

a few other important film experiences were when i saw a clockwork orange in grade 10, and the shining around the same time, or perhaps a year earlier. i didn’t realize until some time later that these all came from the same director. this explains why i have such reverence for kubrick.

there are few things i value more than personal landmark experiences in film and music. looking back at some of my other favourite filmmakers (tarkovsky!), i can see how my tastes were formed. thanks, stanley.