Feature Friday: “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1964)

It took me a while to catch up with this one, but when I did, I saw it projected at the Siskel. The experience was utterly beautiful and overwhelming, so see it in a theater if you can. It’s one of the greatest love stories I know.

Parajanov is frequently mentioned in comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky, but he’s sadly not gotten anywhere near the attention. The two were friends and fellow rebels against Soviet Realism. Tarkovsky ended up exiled. Parajanov got sent to Siberia, 1973–7. (He was later imprisoned again in the early 80s.) Despite this, both men continued making films until they both passed away (Tarkovsky in 1986, Parajanov in 1990.)

Parajanov’s work is in some ways similar to Tarkovsky’s, but also extremely different. Like Tarkovsky, he was a master of composition, and made extensive use of it. (I initially came across both Parajanov and Tarkovsky due to my interest in other composition-based directors, like Jack Smith, Peter Greenaway, and Derek Jarman.) That’s not to say that Parajanov didn’t use montage—he did—but that you have to read the mise-en-scène to know what’s going on. (Pay close attention, for instance, to Shadows‘s use of color.)

That makes Parajanov sound like work, but he’s really quite fun. All of his films, even the much more sober Color of Pomegranates (1968), are pretty silly. His work often reminds me of Calvino’s, being similarly rooted in folktale and folk poetry, and heavy doses of the supernatural. (He’s also not unlike Wes Anderson, I suppose—though giddier, and with fewer Stones tracks.)

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Feature Friday: “The Devils” (1971)

I was looking for a copy of Lair of the White Worm (1988), my favorite Ken Russell film, but couldn’t find it. So we’ll have to make do with The Devils, another extraordinary (and far more notorious) film by the late master.

The Devils was hard to find uncut for a long time, and was even banned in the UK, because it’s giddily blasphemous and offended a lot of people. I watched it in the late 90s and thought it was “OK.” Either I saw a severely edited version, or I was half asleep at the time, or just feeling jaded, because The Devils really is pretty nuts.

And, sure, it’s blasphemous. So what? People blaspheme daily, and so art should, too. And it’s not as though Russell was targeting only “Catholicism” or “Christians” or “religion”; he got a rise out of criticizing everybody. He had too solid an understanding of humanity—of its many accomplishments and its many failings—to take anyone’s sensibilities too seriously. (In that regard he’s a lot like Paul Verhoeven and even Peter Greenaway: folks who’d rather be honest about what is grotesque in human nature.)

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Feature Friday: “The Baby of Mâcon” (1993)

Time Magazine, Peter Greenaway had you beat back in 1993—and then some. Below the jump you’ll find the polemical Welsh director’s response to a similar debate in 1993, when the perennially outrageous United Colors of Benetton ultra-outraged Britons with an ad featuring a newborn baby (still bloody, its umbilical cord still attached). Greenaway replied:

What is so horrible about a newborn baby? Why is that image (one that is seen many times a day in hospitals all over the country) so unacceptable, when much more horrific images are presented on television and the cinema, featuring murder and rape, but glamorized and made safe?

And thus he set out to make a film that would be exactly what he thought audiences wanted.

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We would gladly have repainted the trees and the sky

Peter Greenway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts (A.K.A. Z00) [1985] begins with a swan crashing into a car, killing two people. The driver survives, but lives the remainder of the film as an amputee having lost her right leg. By film’s end, the amputee decides to remove her one remaining leg and falls in love with another double amputee.

Writing is an act of disability

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This is the book I’m most looking forward to this year

And it’s a reprint, and I already own the original:

It’s that good.

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An Interview with Me at Untoward

just went up—well, Part One did, in which Matt Rowan asks me questions about my first book (Amazing Adult Fantasy), G.I. Joe, geek culture, Ota Benga, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and bad writing habits; we also discuss Curtis White, Theodor Adorno, Viktor Shklovsky, and ninjas, among other things.

[Update: Part Two, which focuses more on my first novel, Giant Slugs, is now up.]

Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man”: The Dollhouse and the Forbidden Room

He’s become a punchline here in the US, but that doesn’t make Jerry Lewis any less of a cinematic genius. Case in point: his 1961 masterpiece The Ladies Man:

Whether you’re a fan of Lewis’s eccentric comedy or not, this film is worth watching for its legendary “dollhouse” set alone, supposedly the largest built by that time (it occupied two Paramount soundstages), and still one of the most elaborate ever constructed.

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The Barthelme Problem

[This post is something of a response to John’s recent post, and some of the comments made there by Darby, John, and me.]

Back in high school/college, my favorite filmmakers were Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, and Martin Scorsese:

As you can see, I gravitated toward a visually spectacular cinema. Everything else looked so boring! So mundane!

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Style as Imitation

Leonardo #1, page 17 (1987) (detail; First Publishing reprint). Art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

1.

My father, who once trained as a baker, taught me when I was a kid how to bake an apple pie. I don’t know where he got the original recipe from; I highly doubt that he invented it. Certainly he didn’t invent the idea of baking pies. And he didn’t invent the idea of baking an apple pie.

He was very clear about certain instructions:

  • always use Granny Smith apples;
  • always use ice-cold water;
  • touch the dough as little as possible.

Since then, I’ve baked several apple pies, and over time I’ve modified the recipe slightly, but it’s essentially the same (and I never violate his prime instructions).

When I make a new apple pie, I’m not doing anything new.

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Hail the New Puritan

Michael Clark and company

Hail the New Puritan (1987) is a feature-length film directed by Charles Atlas. The choreography is by a very young Michael Clark, who was then still the enfant terrible of the London dance scene, famous for his post-punk ballet. (He later went on to play Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s magnificent Prospero’s Books (1991); today he’s a well-respected choreographer.) The costumes and decor are by the late Leigh Bowery. The music is by The Fall, with additional music by Bruce Gilbert (of Wire) and Glenn Branca (who was everywhere in 1987).

The movie is essentially a fake documentary about a day in the life of Michael Clark, who worked with The Fall throughout the 1980s:

The dynamic diary film, Hail the New Puritan, inspired by the Beatles’ dancing movie A Hard Days Night, documents the daily life of Britain’s bad boy of ballet Michael Clark in a pastiche of narrative, performance and fantasy. It follows his professional life as director of his anarchic dance company, and also offers a glimpse into his personal life as he lustily mingles with numerous London scenesters including bi-sexual clubgoer and original party monster Leigh Bowery. “What I was trying to do was put Michael’s work in a context where you wouldn’t need an explanation,” Atlas explains, acknowledging the ethics involved in collaborating with dancers (one must not upstage them).

Alas, the film is very hard to find—or, rather, you can find it, but renting it will really cost you. (Quite a shame there isn’t a mass-market DVD available. It was recently restored and screened, and screenings have been popping up here and there, so here’s hoping!) So I’m assembling below all of the clips up at YouTube, for your viewing enjoyment.

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Notes on Twee, part 2: The Crash Test Dummies (Those Avant-Garde Harbingers of Mainstream Superheroes, School Plays, and the Willful Embrace of Nostalgia)

Was this the Twee avant-garde?

In my last post in this series, I embedded and linked to every single music video I know that uses the concept of the video as a school musical. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any; I’m sure there are more.) Such videos became especially pronounced in the 2000s, especially between 2005 and 2007. (Perhaps since then the success of Disney’s High School Musical (2006) has killed the concept?)

The earliest example that I could find was the video for the Crash Test Dummies’ 1994 hit single “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm,” from their 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet. Embedding has been disabled for this video, but I’d encourage you to go watch it. (I’ll go watch it, too, and relive the glory days of my high school senior year).

What strikes me most about this video now, aided by hindsight, is how avant-garde it is. By this I don’t mean that it’s experimental; rather, my point is that this video anticipates a good deal of the next 15–20 years of US culture. (And I don’t think the Crash Test Dummies were unique in this, but they make for a convenient example. Also, I think it’s amusing to point out how so many aesthetic elements supposedly novel today were in fact already with us two decades ago.)

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My Favorite New Movies of 2009

[Update: 2010 is here] [and 2011 is here]

Here are my favorite new movies of 2009, like you care. I’m drawing from the films I saw in the theater this year, some of which were “officially” released a year or two ago. But they’re all new.

NOT one of my favorite films this year

…So, Mr. Cranky, what did you like?

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