Sunday, May 27, 2012


If Memorial Day is about remembrance, then one should remember clearly and accurately. Maintaining a properly attuned record of history is the purpose of Alain Resnais’ 1955 documentary Night and Fog, a short but potent chronicle of the Nazi concentration camps, from construction to destruction. From the very opening, Resnais seeks to remind us that the atrocities perpetrated in WWII are not an example of extraordinary human circumstance, but born of something more common, more baseline, something primal within ourselves. Resnais states it from the very start: All roads lead to human cruelty, whether intentional or not, and we must be vigilant to make sure the worst paths are never obscured.

Night and Fog is built around what was, at the time, contemporary footage of the closed camps. The grass was growing over the rubble, the sun was shining on the wreckage as if nothing had ever happened. For all intents and purposes, the ruins could have been any working community that had been shut down--and using archival footage and photographs, Resnais shows us that, in their way, that’s exactly what the death camps were. The Nazis established their own normalcy. The imprisoned had structure. There was commerce, labor, and politics.

And there was also brutality and humiliation. Resnais eases us into the true horror. His narration is matter-of-fact, Hanns Eisler’s music is at times jaunty, underscoring the dark comedy of a death mask. “We must live with this, as we do everything else,” Night and Fog seems to say. “This is what was, and this is what is.” Clarity is essential.

Yet, as the film takes us deeper into the lifecycle of the concentration camp, the presentation ever so subtly shifts. There is no denying the gruesome facts. People died. They died horribly. The perpetrators presented an ordered front, but behind that were the worst things you could imagine. Resnais’ point seems to be that this is the easiest aspect to forget. As history becomes comfortable, as we get used to the past being the past, the mind glosses over the jagged edges. Two years prior to Night and Fog, there was Stalag 17--a good movie, but one that must have seemed unimaginable to many. A concentration camp comedy! And one with no Jews, no ovens, no mass graves! Night and Fog is the antidote to such flippancy.

Memorial Day can often give over to rah-rah sloganeering--which, let’s not get it wrong, it’s not the same thing as honoring the soldiers or paying tribute to a good fight and hard victories. Those things should be remembered, too, but not at the exclusion of the other side. We should consider the cost of war, the price paid by those who participated, be they soldier or civilian. You can watch a John Wayne movie, you can watch Saving Private Ryan, but you should also watch Night and Fog. Its chilly denouement will make the heroes of those other films seem all the more heroicyou’re your considering what their sacrifice was for. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


It would be stupid for us to ruin our lives for an ideal.

If ever a film was made for an International Film Festival, it’s Certified Copy. A French-funded film directed by an Iranian director, set in Italy, and featuring a script that alternates between French, Italian, and English, it practically needs its own map.

The latest shell game from Abbas Kiarostami is, like many of the director’s films, difficult to describe without being reductionist. In a sense, it’s one long, roving conversation--a little like Malle’s My Dinner with Andre [review] remade as a more grown-up version of Linklater’s Before Sunrise . British opera singer William Shimell plays James Miller, author of a book about the value of art reproduction as an art unto itself. It’s called Certified Copy, and it does more than lend its title to the film: its major themes are also the themes of Kiarostami’s script. Is there more value in something that is genuine than there is in something fake? Is authenticity important, or is the perception of something’s value what really matters? James, it would seem, would say yes. But then, he also wonders aloud whether he authentically believes in what he is saying or he wrote a book in order to convince himself of his own ideas. According to him, simplicity is best. Like what you like for your own sake.

French actress Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a single mother, or so we assume, who is a fan of James’ book and also annoyed by it. She likes what it explores, but doesn’t agree with all the conclusions. When James visits the Tuscan town where she lives with her son, she takes the writer out for a Sunday drive. They end up stopping in a village where couples go to get married because it is supposed to be good luck. Even this becomes fodder for debate. Shouldn’t they be marrying for love rather than kidding themselves that there is some other force helping them along?

Every stop on their journey through this town adds more to the discussion, be it a café, museum, or public square. The back and forth becomes more heated, particularly as past connections are revealed between them. As some might say, “shit gets real.” Except we’re never sure if it does. When an old woman running a coffee shop mistakes James for Elle’s husband, she doesn’t correct her, and suddenly they share this seemingly invented life. James goes along with it, and Kiarostami quickly sows the seeds of confusion. Just what is between these two?

Kiarostami has dealt with themes of adopted identity before, most notably in his film Close-Up [review], a reenactment of a true story about a man passing himself off as a famous Iranian film director and the family that agrees to be in his “movie.” Kiarostami is a director who is interested in the relationship between truth and fiction, of the illusion of cinema and how the audience accepts it. His 1997 film A Taste of Cherry famously removed the veil in its final shots, showing the film crew standing nearby. His last movie, Shirin [review], was composed entirely of images of different women (including Juliette Binoche) watching the same movie, the film’s narrative consisting of their reactions to the other narrative being shown offscreen. Given that the women were looking straight ahead, it made the audience the unseen movie. We watched them watching us. Certified Copy also brings to mind vague echoes of Kim Ki-Duk’s Real Fiction, though the Korean filmmaker’s voyeuristic verité and use of doppelgangers is far more abstract and psychologically trying.

Certified Copy doesn’t resort to such self-reflexive tricks; instead, Kiarostami offers multiple metaphors for his central question that keeps the audience on its guard. There is the painting in the museum that, for two centuries, was believed to be from Rome, but that had recently been discovered as being a forgery from Naples. It now hangs as a multi-layered object: what it is and what it is a copy of. But can’t it exist on its own? It’s not like the original painting wasn’t a copy of real life. Later, James and Elle visit a fountain with a statue that is meant to depict true love. Next to it, the strained relationship between the flesh and blood couple seems diminished. Which is more of an approximation?

The director playfully toys with the visuals throughout the film. Scenes often appear on two planes, with one actor present in the frame and another visible from outside the shot, seen as a reflection in a mirror or glass. Kiarostami is creating copies of his own performers, calling attention to the artifice through the construction of his image. The day out for James and Elle is a relationship occurring at warp speed. It escalates from nervous first impressions, through getting to know each other and straight into commitment, and then into exasperated familiarity. Amusingly, throughout their walk, the other couples the pair meet keep getting older and older, newlyweds to feeble senior citizens. 

Juliette Binoche is a treasure. I think she’s incapable of a bad performance. She is the gravitational pull that dictates which way the tide flows in Certified Copy. Hers is a fully inhabited performance, complex in its emotional range. There are moments of tremendous heartbreak, but she also expresses hope and joy and frustration with equal strength. Her face is a sophisticated tool, capable of conveying any thought or emotion. The less-experienced Shimell can’t quite keep up. There are times when his acting appears mannered and put-on, usually when he is peering directly into the camera. It doesn’t really hurt the film, but you can’t help but wonder how much better Certified Copy could have been if Binoche were sparring with a champion of equal strength.

In addition to the scenes where we see one of the actors reflected in a random surface, we also get two scenes, one for each character, where James and Elle regard themselves in a mirror. (Like Shirin, what they are looking at, arguably, is us.) It’s in these moments that both seem to be making a decision of how much they are willing to reject the invention. If a fake life is as legitimate as a real one, then there is no reason to go along with it. Or, depending on how you choose to see it, they are maybe discarding the illusions and excuses that have kept them apart. The veracity of the experience is in the purview of the individual viewer, which could be Abbas Kiarostami’s most appropriate object lesson yet: how much you choose to accept his fiction only reinforces Certified Copy’s driving conceit.

Saturday, May 5, 2012



The Avengers, the film at pole position for the summer blockbuster season. Joss Whedon delivers a big budget aventure with great characters and even better action.

The Cabin in the Woods, a fun puzzle of horror and comedy. Avoid info on this one, just go! (Whedon also writes this one.)

Damsels in Distress, it's Whit Stillman to the rescue in the director's first movie in 14 years.

The Deep Blue Seabeauty and heartbreak in a new film from Terence Davies. Starring Rachel Weisz.

The Five-Year Engagementan uneven romantic comedy with genuine laughs and heavy sentiment. Starring Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. 


Roadie, Michael Cuesta's middle-aged rock 'n' roll drama has sharp writing and sharper performances.

Something to Live For, featuring Ray Milland in an unofficial sequel to The Lost Weekend.

Friday, May 4, 2012


It's weird living in an age when someone you never met has passed away and yet you know about it faster than you might were it someone in your own family.

I first saw mention of Adam Yauch's death on Twitter this morning. That one post was then followed by four. Then countless. Like many people, I decided to head to This is My Jam and change my song to one from the Beastie Boys. Yauch was better known as MCA, one of the three masterminds behind possibly the longest-running active group in hiphop. I wanted to mark "The Sounds of Science" from Paul's Boutique because it's the one where he says, "That's right, my name's Yauch." It took me three tries to get the site to load. My queue of friends was full of Beastie songs. The outpouring of love for MCA was crashing the servers.

I always thought I'd review Criterion's Beastie Boys Video Anthology one day as a stop-gap, a quickly dashed piece about how the double-disc set was put together when I was behind the eight ball and needing a special ninja move to get out. I mean, how do you really write about a music video collection? Do you dig into the thematic narrative the way you do a regular movie? I suppose you could, but it'll probably read like a real stretch.

But now that I think about it, there is a thread that runs through the Beastie videos: it's the thread of our collective lives. Each segment represents a "where were you." At what point in your life did you first see "Fight For Your Right" or "So What'cha Want" or "Body Movin'"? Particularly in the first half of their career, when everyone watched MTV and, as one pundit whose name I've long forgotten once said, the cultural vernacular changed from, "Did you hear that new song by [Band X]?" to "Did you see that new song by [Band X]?" I remember the group returning after the post-Licensed to Ill exile and the big deal that MTV made about "Hey Ladies." It's perhaps telling of the band's influence that as much of a big deal was made last year when they debuted the long-form "Make Some Noise." I couldn't download that clip fast enough. The album that followed, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, being pretty great was a triumph in many ways, not least of which being that, at least for the time being, Adam Yauch was beating the cancer that was destroying his body.

It's a shame that the band decided not to include their Licensed to Ill-era videos on Video Anthology. I know that the Beasties have a conflicted relationship with their debut. It's a party record, a bit of a joke, and much of the lyrical content is, if taken seriously, regrettable. At the same time, the music was revolutionary. Rick Rubin's production style, marrying samples and beats with a unique cold fusion of rock and metal, was unlike anything most of us had heard way back in 1986. It was the first rap record a lot of us ever owned, and it changed the public at large's point of view about the then relatively new art form.

Though unintentional, Licensed to Ill successfully achieved what would become Yauch and Co.'s long-term goal: it unified people. Licensed to Ill came out when I was transitioning from junior high to high school, and back then, it seemed like everyone listened to the Beastie Boys. It didn't matter what social group you belonged to, or what other music you preferred, you owned a cassette of Licensed. I remember sitting in English class and this cheerleader named Tanya was talking with the other popular girls about how Mike D was her favorite Beastie because he was the cutest, and I was able to enter the conversation to say I liked Mike D, too, because I liked his style, particularly his sunglasses. Because of the Beastie Boys, and specifically their visual image as seen in music videos, people who never talked to each other were communicating, even if only for a short time.

Paul's Boutique came out as I was getting ready to leave high school and preparing to leave home and go to college. As I mentioned, the first thing to emerge, at least in such a way to reach where I lived, was the "Hey Ladies" video. Funny to note now, but I kind of hated it when I first saw it. I wondered what had happened to the Beastie Boys. What was with all the 1970s clothes and the weird, shifting structure of the song? This wasn't what I expected from them, and though considered a masterpiece now, the album in full was not what anyone had waited three years to hear. Luckily, another kid at my school, Derek Walkington, had gotten Paul's Boutique on tape and he embraced its eclecticism and made me give it a listen. Using Licensed to Ill as a foundation, the Beasties were taking their sound and stretching it to every conceivable length. Yes, there was disco and funk, but there was also rockabilly and punk and the fragmentary experimentation of "B-Boy Bouillabaisse," the extended medley that closed the record. What initially freaked everyone out about Paul's Boutique would later be hailed as the band's willingness to explore and grow.

That attitude would pay off big time in 1992 when the Beastie Boys released Check Your Head. Though not as all over the map or even as creative as Paul's, Check Your Head drew its lines more clearly. There was the rap song, and then there was the funky instrumental, and then a punk song--it was chopped up rather than blended, and though it shouldn't have worked (and really, I'd still argue that it and Ill Communication are the least satisfying as "albums"), Check Your Head captured everything about the emerging "alternative" culture and, in many ways, pointed the way to the 21st Century, when inclusive lifestyles and a broad-based consumption of media would be the norm. Derek and I went to see the Beasties at Lollapalooza that year. We were in the orchestra pit at Irvine Meadows. Nicolas Cage and Samantha Mathis were standing behind us. I got to shake Cage's hand. And the show was awesome.

It was probably the last time I was that fully invested in the Beastie Boys, and also the only time I ever saw them live. Still, I can trace a map of my life since based on the albums that followed. Ill Communication came out the first year I lived in Portland and was working at Dark Horse Comics; Hello Nasty was released after I had left Dark Horse and was working at a record store, and it was a particular favorite of my girlfriend, who also worked there. (I should note, it's also the last period represented on Video Anthology, which was released in 2000.) To the 5 Boroughs  has the distinction of being the post-9/11 album, but it also represents for me a sweet spot in my career, when I was ensconced at Oni Press and it was just me and Joe Nozemack and James Lucas Jones, our own creative trio, doing our thing. By Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, I had left Oni Press and had established myself as a freelance writer.

I realize that all of the above is, in so many ways, more about me and less about Adam Yauch, but such is how these things tend to be. MCA and I have never met, I don't know him personally, I only know how he affected my life and how, as an artist, he was always there, influencing me and inspiring me. Paul's Boutique, so weird at first, came out right when I was becoming a different person, trying new things, and breaking out of my safe teenage world. As I grew, the Beastie Boys were growing with me, and vice versa.

If anything, the legacy of Adam Yauch is one of open-mindedness and principled exploration. His career choices demonstrate that one need never be limited in what sphere they choose to operate in, and at the same time, one can be true to oneself. In word and deed, MCA showed that you could be an individual while also caring about everyone around you. Limits are only for the weak-minded. The Beastie Boys Video Anthology succinctly encapsulates the first 2/3 of the band's career, and yet puts them on the cutting edge at the same time. When it came out 12 years ago, there was nothing like it. There were so many options for how to watch the videos, and also so many options for how to listen to the songs, the DVD case actually came with a map for how to navigate between all of them. Amusingly, my favorite video is now "Hey Ladies," because its cheeky humor means it has always stayed fresh. It's kitsch without the condescension that tag normally implies. Perhaps it's also amusing that, in keeping with the Beasties ethos of standing on one's own feet, the most popular cut here, "Sabotage," is for me the least interesting. I've always found it to be a bit too one-note, a 30-second joke extended past the point of breaking. I know that's the minority opinion, but sometimes you just have to stand apart.

It should be noted before I close that Adam Yauch had become an important contributor to the world of cinema in the last several years. He often directed Beastie Boys videos and live shows (the videos embedded here are his, and chosen specifically because of that), and he was the man behind the camera on the basketball documentary Gunnin' for that #1 Spot. Yauch was also the founder of Oscilloscope Studios, one of the most influential independent film studios currently running. It has provided an outlet for filmmakers as eclectic as Lynne Ramsay, Samantha Morton, Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, Kelly ReichardtJules Dassin, Oren Moverman, and Michel Gondry, and has introduced the world to movies like If a Tree Falls, KissesMonogamy, The Exploding GirlTreeless Mountain, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, A Film Unfinished--the list goes on. All those links are to reviews I wrote of the movies mentioned, but you can also explore this list by of all the Oscilloscope films currently available on Netflix.

Rest in Peace, Adam Yauch, age 47.

Read an extensive obituary at