Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Humble Beginnings of David Cronenberg

The following is an entry to the Director's Chair blogathon being hosted by Matte Havoc.

I doubt there's an orifice or body secretion that David Cronenberg doesn't like. Add to that some weird fetishes and his unwavering view on mankind's clinical obsession between sex and science and one arrives at a truly strange yet brilliant body of work. His best films deal with body infestation ("Shivers" and "The Fly") or the idea of twisted connections of obsession and technological mutation ("Videodrome and "existenz"). Al of these ideas are present in Cronenberg's debut film, "Stereo" (1969), and follow up "Crimes of the Future" (1970).

Ok, full disclosure here- both of these early efforts are not very good films. Yet there is some merit in the ideas and thoughts being explored. Like all great filmmakers, there are themes and predilections that will be analyzed and evolved throughout the remainder of his career. While "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" suffer from true student film shortcomings, they serve as fascinating footnotes for a filmmaker searching for an identity.

"Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" deal with similar themes. Both were filmed around the University of Toronto in which Cronenberg attended during the 1960's. While "Stereo" is black and white, "Crimes of the Future" is his first full length color film. Neither of the films, which details the various wanderings of a quizzical scientist, used on location sound editing, forcing them to have a full narration track added in post-production which lends a very detached and monotone feel to the works. Imagine listening to a psychologist read his graduate studies paper aloud and one gets the idea of Cronenberg's desire to lull the viewer with phrases such as "transmorphic inebriation". In essence, "Crimes of the Future", which is the more watchable of the two films, takes a larger financial backing and explores the themes of "Stereo". Starring Ronald Mlodzik as a black coated doctor wandering around the post-modern architecture of the college, he has created the "House of Skin", an institute that treats men inflicted with a disease caused by the use of cosmetics in the future. After his one and only patient dies (through an excruciatingly painful act of a foam liquid being secreted from his eyes, ears and mouth), the doctor wanders from institute to institute coming into contact with other men suffering from various afflictions. Women have all but been annihilated from the very same cosmetic apocalypse, yet there are mutations that crop up in his wanderings such as a male patient who is said to grow female organs before they fall of and re-grow later. Yes, "Crimes of the Future" plays out just as weird as all this sounds. There are some scenes of the doctor playing with other men's feet in some sort of telepathic showcase and a group of men hiding a little girl, whose ominous face and blank stare the film ends on. As a cohesive whole, "Crimes of the Future" fails pretty miserably.

Medical and philosophical ramblings aside, there are some things "Crimes of the Future" does well. Besides looking terrific, Cronenberg's use of light and shadow eclipse some of his later work which preferred to show the violence in full display. His fascination with one's body turning on itself is also a recurring theme as the previously mentioned secretion of fluids signals the death of several patients. It's also not hard to identify his genre-pushing methods of having the doctor (Mlodzik) be mildly attracted to the fluids, eventually tasting them himself. With "Crash" on the way twenty five years later, its obvious Cronenberg wanted to disgust and fascinate in perverse ways early on. Also, the very title itself would be the "aka" title to his 1997 film "existenz"... still one of my very favorite Cronenberg films and the most trenchant examination of virtual reality ever presented on film. Lastly, Cronenberg's now famous image of an exploding head in "Scanners" have their humble beginnings in both "Stereo" and "Crimes of the Future" with their main characters constantly alluding to the telepathic powers inherent in them. In "Crimes of the Future" especially, there are several scenes of the doctor placing a bare foot to his forehead, trying to manipulate the mind of his patient. The budget wasn't there for an exploding head, but one can sure bet Cronenberg would have figured out a way to include this if he could.

But its the simple traits of "Crimes of the Future" that are the most amazing. Clearly ahead of his time with content, Cronenberg's soundtrack is a truly unnerving experience, full of disconcerting static noises, birds chirping and mechanical droning sounds that add an otherwordly feel to the futuristic pinnings of his film. Also, technically speaking "Crimes of the Future" is a polished film, full of magisterial tracking shots down hallway corridors and fish eye lenses shots that distort the narrative in that oh so good 60's way. Even if I doubt I'll ever watch these two films again, I feel a bit more schooled in the Cronenberg method of cinema... a career that revels in the excess of the nightmarish and wades through the ugly waters of body secretions like no other.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vermeers and Frustrated Fathers: 2 From Jon Jost

Working on the margins of even independent cinema since the late 70's and carving out a uniquely original voice, filmmaker Jon Jost really came into his own during the early and mid 90's. The benefactor of several retrospectives of his work and lavish write-ups by critics around the world during this time, it's all to sad that a majority of his work is still unavailable on any type of home video distribution today. And as for the unique voice part, once one sees a Jost film, it sticks inside your head like nothing else, developing its own rhythm and visual scheme that instantly identifies itself as something completely organic.

The one Jost film that is currently available on DVD, "All the Vermeers In New York", is as good a place as any for novices to start. Divided into a series of scenes that play out with much patience, it's a collage of several people in New York City who come together through a fateful meeting in a museum between stockbroker Mark (Stephen Lack) and aspiring French actress Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet). He instantly falls in love with her, comparing her beauty and high forehead to the paintings of Vermeer he observes her studying. Growing out from there, we meet Anna's room ate Felicity (Grace Phillips) who helps Anna remain a cool distance from her suitor on their first meeting when the girls pretend Anna doesn't speak English. Felicity comes from a wealthy background and we observe her arguing with her father over the (possible) immoral use of her name involved with his investments. There's also an unusual scene between a painter (Gordon Weiss), desperate for money from the gallery owner for his paintings which ends with him cutting his work directly out of its frame. The idea of money, financial incongruities and art waver throughout Jost's film. We observe mark's stressful days in a stockbroker firm in two long takes as he wheels and deals on the phone. Felicity obviously wants to distance herself from her father's potentially dirty money, but just can't seem to afford to. And as for the central relationship between Mark and Anna, Jost avoids heading into rom-com niceties, exposing the relationship as something true on Mark's part but predatory on Anna's... such as when she asks him for a loan to help pay her rent then pines for her "boyfriend" back home in Paris in the next scene. If anything, "All the Vermeer In New York" is a cautionary tale about forced attraction in the urban jungle. Does Mark, who seems to frequent the Met often, simply fall in love with the perfect idea of Anna or is he truly in love with her? In typical Jost fashion, he raises more questions than answers, opting to portray a mood and feeling rather than a cut and dry romance. Two scenes in particular go a long way in sustaining this mood- the first is a methodical tracking shot around the halls of a museum... a shot Jost loves to repeat in later films such as "The Bed You Sleep In"... and the second is a trip to the pinnacle of the Twin Towers where both Anna and Mark espouse their views on life and ultimately probably define why they are not made for each other.

In 1990, Jost released "Sure Fire", a film about as far away from the concrete hustle and bustle of the New York art world one could get. Starring Tom Blair as Wes, a fast-talking real estate developer in Utah, it's a spare drama that builds to a violent climax with very little effort. Blair is the archetypal Jost leading man.... articulate, calculating and without a swear word in his vocabulary. In his numerous scenes, both at work and home, Blair sends out a host of "by gollys" and "you can bet on that" in his monologues. Small glimpses of his home life reveal his wife is struggling with their marriage, none more so penetrating than in a five minute take as she ruminates on her life through an allegorical tale of a trapped farm animal.

The final half of the film involves Wes taking two friends and his son on a hunting trip. One scene, as Wes gives his son his first hunting rifle than spends an extraordinary amount of time explaining the do's and dont's of firearm safety, Jost creates immense tension seemingly out of thin air. Throughout its relatively short (80 minutes) run time, "Sure Fire" etches into the viewer's consciousness that something terrible is on the horizon and then promptly delivers. While neither "Sure Fire" not "All the Vermeers In New York" play by the rules, they are both galvanizing examples of the experimental and independent nature of Jon Jost. Even though there are 2000 miles in between their stories and settings, both films acutely emphasize that unhappiness and the unpredictability of human nature can strike anywhere and anyone.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If I Programmed a Film Festival #3

Day 1:

**** Euro Crime Series

1. The Last Round (1975)- Italian version of "Yojimbo" as a drifter pits two warring families against each other.

2. Magnet of Doom (1963)- Unreleased Jean Pierre Melville road movie starring Jean Paul Belmondo as he high tails it to the deep U.S. South. Wonderful, oddly observed Americana from Melville. Review coming soon.

****World Premier

1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (2010)- Because everything I've read about it sounds terrific. From Film Comment, "Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Grand Jury prize co- winner is an intoxicatingly strange, oblique police procedural..."

**** Auteuristic Western series

1. Duck You Sucker (1971)- Probably Sergio Leone's least known western is a fun romp with Rod Steiger and James Coburn.

2. The Claim (2000)- Michael Winterbottom's lush and beautiful western that grows better on each viewing.

3. The Long Riders (1980)- Walter Hill made some incredible movies, and this one with a gimmick of starring real life brothers, imbues the viewer with terrific atmosphere and mood.

**** 70's Bonanza Faves

1. Man On A Swing- Frank Perry's deliriously good (and hugely unknown) film about a police detective (Cliff Robertson) wading through real life murder and possible psychic tomfoolery.

Day 2:

**** Auteuristic Western Series Part 2

1. Rancho Notorious (1952)- Possibly my very favorite Fritz Lang film... a western that inverts the genre into something more like his noir films. It just teems with great stuff.

2. The Train Robbers (1972)- Burt Kennedy's AARP western is a good time, with John Wayne leading a group of men on the hunt for stolen gold. And it features what is probably the best final line in any Wayne western.

3. Open Range (2003)- I can forgive Kevin Costner for his rambling "Wyatt Earp" with this vicious, tightly constructed actioner. One of the best westerns of the past 20 years IMO.

**** World Premier 2

1. Drive (2011)- I can always dream right.

**** Euro Crime continuation tickets half price for these two movies!

1. The Master Touch (1972)- Kirk Douglas is stealthy and stellar as an aging safecracker doing one last job. Terrific heist and great double crosses abound!

2. The American Friend (1977)- Wim Wender's real 70's masterpiece with Bruno Ganz sucked into a plot of murder and deception with art thief Dennis Hopper.

****70's Bonanza Faves

1. The Black Windmill (1974)- Don Siegel's tough as nails film about a man (Michael Caine) who takes matters into his own hands when his son is kidnapped.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The Myth of the American Sleepover

In David Robert Mitchell’s micro-indie “The Myth of the American Sleepover”, the aimlessness of youth and awkwardness of teenage love are given seamless examination. Taking as its starting off point one long summer night on the precipice of beginning high school, it wouldn’t be unfair to mention it in the same breath alongside “Dazed and Confused” or “The Last Picture Show”… films that manage to encapsulate a certain time and mood of expiring childhood. The film follows a handful of teenagers, both male and female, as their various parties and sleepovers migrate and fold across each other. Featuring a host of amateur faces, not only does writer-director Mitchell elicit sweet, honest performances from everyone involved, but the film avoids hard plot contrivances and simply exists. The scene of a boy and girl breaking up through a bedroom window or the visual of a dream girl fading away when a boy sees several phone numbers scribbled on her arm are only the hallmarks of a film that takes its title seriously. “The Myth of the American Sleepover”, besides being one of the year’s best films, also provides us with great memories of our moments at this age, checkered by inexperience and a naïve outlook, but ones that we constantly try to re-live as we grow older.

Cowboys and Aliens

Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens” is a summer entertainment event that successfully melds the western and the sci-fi invasion film into a thoroughly engaging effort. Like it or not, Favreau seems to be made for producing no-nonsense, easily digestible big tent movies with the right amount of intelligent humor and character connection. As the cowboys charged with holding off an alien invasion and human harvesting experiment, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford are amiable. But faring even better is Olivia Wilde as a mysterious hanger-on to the events whose beautiful looks and other worldly eyes make for a surprising character arch. More than a pretty face, Wilde is a terrific actress who will certainly mature into something more as her careers progresses.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Going into “Crazy, Stupid, Love” with high expectations after solid word of mouth and mostly favorable critical writings only made the deadening experience that much more intolerable. Chock to the brim with stock comedy scenarios, a grating and precocious thirteen year old who seems to crop up in every Steve Carell movie lately and a film that acknowledges in one scene that “this is so cliché” then proceeds to hammer home so many more of the same…. It all goes so wrong. Even Ryan Gosling, usually dependable in anything he does, feels stale and overwrought. A sure miss fire for me.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Produced and Abandoned #11

I have to say, the fun of doing these lists has only increased since being introduced to a couple different places that has my head swimming with hard to find, cult and severely obscure titles. Part of the challenge is now typing up this produced and abandoned list and then actually finding the movie. Anyways, ten more titles deserving a region 1 DVD release:

1. Serie Noir (1979)- Alain Corneau's described "nihilistic" thriller is available on a French DVD, but none other than that. Taken from a Jim Thompson novel, the film tracks the bloody path of a salesman caught up with the crime syndicate. Everything I've read about it sounds enthralling.
2. Endless Desire (1958)- Shohei Imamura's late 50's tale that sounds downright fascinating about a group of men and women in postwar Japan slowly eliminated after stealing army equipment. So much Imamura is not available on DVD.
3. Massacre At Central High (1976)- Supposedly violent tale about a bullied student who exacts revenge. Always mentioned when talking about influential grindhouse cinema, this film would be a great addition from Blue Underground?
4. The Tenant (1976)- Roman Polanski's aggressive update of his own "Repulsion", starring himself, I remember as an avant garde, psychological masterpiece when I watched it years ago. Now OOP on DVD, it's one of the few not available.
5. State of Siege (1972)- Like Francesco Rosi, Costa-Gavras is a filmmaker interested in the political subtext behind every story, and this early 70's film traces the tenuous relationship between a Uruguyan terrorist group and the various political organizations that funded them. Sounds highly promising.
6. Kamikaze 1989 (1982)- Not sure where I first heard about this German sci-fi film, but just check out the synopsis: "In a totalitarian society of the future, in which the government controls all facets of the media, a homicide detective investigates a string of bombings, and finds out more than he bargained for." from imdb.com.
7. The Sicilian Clan (1968)- There is so much worse Euro-crime out there, its a shame this well paced and thrilling film isn't available. Alain Delon stars as an escaped convict with detective Lino Ventura in pursuit. Delon hooks up with crime boss Jean Gabin and his family and they plan a heist to steal a planeload of jewels. At times Jean-Pierre Melville-lite, but it features a terrific opening escape and that moody blue and gray Paris skyline sets the tone perfectly. It does pop up on TV occasionally.
8. The Spy In Black (1939)- Michael Powell's war thriller about a German sub on a mission to sink British ships. Update: looks like it will air on TCM next month! Set the DVR.
9. The Sea Gull (1968)- One of only two Sidney Lumet films I've yet to see (the other being "Child's Play from 1972), but there are hopes of this getting a release since it recently played in New York on a new print during a Lumet retrospective.
10. Drum (1976)- Warren Oates. Sequel to "Mandingo". Enough said. Update: is now on Netflix Instant watch.