Friday, March 25, 2016


One of cinema’s most observant documentarians meets the ramshackle world of rock ’n’ roll in the 1974 film A Poem is a Naked Person. Part concert movie, part journalistic portrait, part travelogue, Les Blank trains his camera on singer-songwriter Leon Russell, an Oklahoma native, piano player, and revered session musician who, in the early 1970s, transitioned into solo work, performing swampy rock jams and writing a few classics along the way, perhaps most notably “A Song for You.”

Blank joins up with Russell’s camp at the apex of the performer’s career, when success has allowed him an opportunity to build a recording studio in his home state. Blank’s team follows Russell throughout the construction, though they don’t always stay around to watch the hammers swing. Interspersed with these scenes are snapshots from the road, including full performances and dalliances backstage. For much of A Poem is a Naked Person, these are our only real glimpses of Russell. Probably unsurprising to anyone who knows Blank’s work, the director spends much of the movie looking at the world around his subject, getting reactions from the locals regarding their famous new neighbor or watching as Jim Franklin, the man painting a mural on the bottom of Russell’s pool, catches scorpions before putting brush to concrete. Or stepping away from people altogether to look at the natural environs.

This impulse to cast his glance sideways keeps A Poem is a Naked Person from being a great music documentary, but Blank makes up for it by basically inventing something that is its own beast. Throughout his work, he has been fascinated by Americana and folk art, and there are subtle touches here, like the Hank Williams façade on the front of a building, or the accidental visual echo of the man with the butterfly tattoo hearkening back to the butterfly imagery in that painting on Russell’s pool.  Even the rootsy music that Russell covers in his concerts remind us of a musical tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of our nation. Not to mention added performances by George Jones and Willie Nelson, themselves legends in the country music field.

The downside is that if you’re looking to learn more about Leon Russell, you’re probably going to be better off reading his Wikipedia entry alongside the film. He doesn’t step out from behind the piano and start to emerge as a character until about halfway through the movie. And even then, since Blank never interviews him directly, he remains an enigma, almost entirely in control of what he shows the camera lens. One is quickly reminded of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back [review], especially so in a scene where Russell sarcastically dresses down a musician using his studio who steps to him in the wrong way. The way the elder statesman verbally bats around the young newbie (Eric Andersen) and puts him on the defensive is up there with Dylan’s humiliation of Donovan, right down to the lesser’s naïve sincerity.

But then maybe the code to this thing is right there in the title: A Poem is a Naked Person. Blank is creating something evocative of the man and his art, and through these captured impressions exposing something about both. He doesn’t exactly strip Leon Russell bare and show him off to the world, but perhaps he exposes more of the personage by suggesting the image dominates all that may be underneath.

For more local color, Maureen Gosling’s, Poem’s sound recordist and assistant editor has put together a montage of some of her own footage taken during the shoot, adding commentary using excerpts from letters she wrote to her parents. (Gosling is one of the director’s of the recent This Ain’t No Mouse Music [review], which shows Blank’s influence quite heavily.)

There are also supplements looking back at the making of the film, including a more recent conversation between Russell and Les Blank’s son Harrod, in which Russell discusses why he initially disliked the film and kept it out of circulation for years. Turns out, he didn’t think it was about him enough either! So is the naked person being put on display really Les Blank after all? Leon seems to think so.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Just when a guy thinks he’s had enough of coming-of-age dramas about troubled adolescents, along comes a movie like A Brighter Summer Day to remind him of why he liked the genre in the first place.

Released in 1991, Edwin Yang’s true-to-life tale has a lot going for it: an interesting setting (Taiwan) during an interesting time period (the start of the 1960s), and historical roots that give it elements of a docudrama. The climactic incident that happens to our main character, Si’r (Chen Chang), actually occurred, and the fallout had a tremendous impact on Taiwanese culture and politics. Or so we are told in a textual coda, Yang’s movie is the build-up to the moment. The denouement is for others to explore.

Taking into account all those things mentioned above, to call A Brighter Summer Day merely a coming-of-age story is to understate it. Yang’s narrative is all encompassing, novelistic in length and approach (the film is nearly 4 hours long), looking not just at the teenaged boy’s troubles, but the struggles of those around him and the reality that informed his downfall. Following the Communist takeover of China, many citizens left the mainland for the small island country of Taiwan to escape persecution. At the outset of the 1960s, the people there are feeling the influence of America (mostly by choice) and Japan (not so much) even as they endeavor to establish their own identity. As Si’r will find out the hard way, there is also an influx of the same oppressive politics his parents tried to outrun.

The Commies and the government are no match for rock ’n’ roll, though. It’s the biggest influence on Si’r and his friends, who form street gangs and adopt ludicrous American nicknames like Honey, Airplane, Tiger, and Deuce. Si’r’s best friend, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), sings with his brother in a band that covers the latest hits, transcribed for them by Si’r’s older sister. The babyfaced, angel-voiced Cat doesn’t know the meaning of the lyrics, but he gets the emotion and sees how the girl’s react to even a middle-aged Asian man singing Elvis. The title of the movie is a misheard lyric from “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and as Cat’s subplot wraps up, we’ll see that music has come to mean for him what it has meant for so many kids since Bill Haley first rocked around the clock: escape from the everyday. Cat and Si’r likewise indulge in escapism by spying on the productions at a movie studio neighboring their school.

Ironically, Si’r is the one perhaps the least in need of escape. Though the budding juvenile delinquent’s behavior might remind one of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows [review], Si’r comes from a nice family who take an interest in his studies and, much to their eventual chagrin, trust him enough to think he’s sticking with it, even when bad behavior and poor performance gets him busted down to night school with other students who act out and underperform. Si’r’s older brother (Han Chang) has gone down a similar path. He’s a hustler with a penchant for pool. So far, though, Si’r has mostly observed rather than participated in anything truly bad. A little vandalism, a minor theft, that’s about it. The kid acts tough, and doesn’t back down when challenged, but he’s not got the mettle to carry through with real violence, especially when his opponent is at a disadvantage.

Deep down, Si’r has romantic tendencies. He fantasizes about a knife that Cat has, believing it was used in a lovers’ suicide pact, staring longingly at a photo of the woman who allegedly owned the blade. He also falls for Ming (Lisa Yang), the girlfriend of the leader of the Little Park Gang, currently on the lam from the law. His absence has left a power vacuum that other boys are trying to fill. This includes making claims on Ming. As many a sensitive adolescent before him, Si’r fancies himself a bit of a white knight, though his intentions and the girls he tries to impose them on never quite line up. Not one, but two young ladies dress him down for trying to change them. These fumblings ultimately lead to tragedy, and of a manner that has haunting parallels to other such tragedies of today.

It’s kind of fascinating how Edward Yang (Yi Yi [review]) constructs such a broad story, and yet manages to pull the strings closed to make it all seem like it’s been about Si’r and Ming. A Brighter Summer Day is so long because Yang’s eye roves from person to person. We see Si’r’s brother get tangled up with a rival gang he’s hustled at pool, we see Si’r’s dad burdened by work woes and government suspicion, and we see Ming’s mother and her declining health. Even the most minor characters get their own arcs. The owner of a café where the Little Park boys like to hang out is only in a few scenes, but from one to the next, she has suffered and grown. It’s not arbitrary, either: in the last scene in the café, Si’r is witness to an alternate option should he choose to step away from gang life. Likewise, his brother’s skill at billiards has an effect on Si’r’s trajectory, it’s not just there to add color.

Yang’s style here is steady, both in visual presentation and scripting (he’s one of four credited writers). The pace and construction is a little bit Godfather-era Coppola, a little TV miniseries. There isn’t a lot of fat, nor a lot of lingering or expository scenes. The dramatic staging is realistic, and the natural settings feel lived in, but A Brighter Summer Day is still big moviemaking at its most fundamental. Yang’s story is large enough to take up as many reels as required. To be honest, before I realized that A Brighter Summer Day was a true story, I thought it might be autobio and Si’r was going to end up working at the movie studio. No dice. Instead, Si’r will eventually decide filmmakers really don’t know anything about life. It’s an ironically meta comment for a movie that itself seems to know so much.

The bonus disc in the A Brighter Summer Day package features a 2002 documentary called Our Time, Our Story, chronicling the rise of independent cinema in Taiwan and the eventual loosening of government control of the motion picture business. The full-length doc does a good job of shedding light on the cinema scene that Edward Yang came out of, even if Yang himself is not interviewed. His contemporaries, like director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon [review], Three Times [review]) do a good job of explaining what a fertile, creative period the mid-1980s was and how they shifted the focus of mainstream movies from kung-fu and romance to reflect life at that time.

Also included is a videotaped performance from 1992 of Yang’s stage play Likely Consequence. Shot on a bare set with the audience flanking both sides, and featuring timed sound effects, the production is ambitious and engaging, even if the presentation here is lo-fi. The drama focuses on a couple debating what to do with a dead body that the wife may or may not have killed on purpose. The more they argue, the more that is revealed about both their past and their current situation.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

SECONDS - #667

I’ve been assigned to go over the circumstances of your death with you.”

So goes the sales pitch that kicks Seconds into high gear. After watching middle-aged, upper-middle-class businessman Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) navigate mysterious instructions from long-lost friends, meat packers, and dry cleaners, we finally get to the heart of the matter, the thing that he is being lured toward. The program isn’t something you choose, they choose you, whether you’re looking for it or not. You ready to take that mid-life crisis of yours by the horns? Look no further. You can wake up tomorrow with a new face, a new vocation, and a new identity. The only price is...well, everything.

A predecessor to Fincher’s The Game [review], a close cousin to Orson Welles’ The Trial, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 paranoid freak-out is an enigmatic, intriguing hallucination. It hits the ground with both feet and runs like hell, never worrying too much to stop and explain itself, confident the audience will get on board, banking on our wanting to understand what it all means, putting us in our anti-hero’s shoes by never letting us know more than he does. It’s fascinating and weird and strangely prescient. It wouldn’t shock me at all to find out this was Charlie Kaufman’s favorite film as a child.

After plastic surgery and rehab, and a complete overhaul of his most telling physical features (new teeth, removed fingerprints, etc.), Arthur wakes up as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson, Magnificent Obsession [review]), a painter with a beach house in California. It’s a fresh start where the husband and father is now a single swinging bachelor, primed to pursue his art, no matter how impractical; he just has to go along and get along. Which naturally, he can’t. The new Mr. Wilson can’t quite wrap his head around what happened to him, and he starts trying to scratch at the veneer.

Rebirth is painful...Is it easier to go forward than go back?

Released at the center of a cultural revolution, Seconds pursues a question of the times: can the past be assimilated into the future? (The present need not apply.) If Arthur Hamilton has bought into the dream of the establishment, living a life of quiet desperation in the suburbs, then he is part of the old guard, one ill prepared for changes to come. Yet, he’s also one with the means to buy his way out. As Wilson, he is set up with a new bohemian lifestyle, free of responsibility, disconnected from cultural change, even if in some ways he is embracing counter culture. The drunken bacchanal that baptizes him as a member of his new community is at once a throwback to the orgies of Rome and a reflection of the Free Love 1960s. Yet it’s false, the whole experience is, which is what Wilson can’t accept. His partying is a bit like Roger Sterling’s experiments with LSD on Mad Men: he has stepped beyond the point where he could maybe pull it off.

The conundrum here is in which direction Frankenheimer’s critique flows. Is his disdain for the squares or for the hippies? The fact that Seconds exists almost within a void, with little hint as to the time it was actually made, it could be viewed as relevant regardless of where you are standing on the continuum. Wilson could just as easily be any struggling white man trying to outrun obsolescence in 2016. The problem is that once Arthur/Wilson has woken up, as it were, he cannot go back to sleep. You can’t roll back history--even if many today try to pretend them can. To not accept change is to end up back in limbo. In this case, an office job within the program, only escapable by selling someone out to your same fate. To once again invoke Mad Men, Wilson is a little like Don Draper at the end of that series, becoming aware that he must relinquish material things, but in this case, too late to bend this enlightenment to his will or exploit it.

Hudson is perfect for the role of the man lost in the construct of himself, perhaps because he knows the pain of living a false identity all to well, having done it for so long in his real life. The restlessness and self-loathing of Wilson grappling with his fraudulent existence is agonizing. Something was lost in the endeavor to have everything. Hudson lends a heaviness to the performance, and when Wilson begins to self-medicate, the actor makes for a very convincing drunk. It’s one of the funniest scenes in a movie full of black humor, and one of the creepiest when the crowd all turn against him. That drunkenness gives way to a tangible despair, and the self-medication turns to literal medication when Wilson returns to the company. They give him pharmaceuticals to keep him pacified. It’s yet another turn that is all too current and relevant, 50 years later.

Seconds is nothing if not immediate. Even how it was shot was intended to make it seem as if it were happening at the exact moment each viewer witnesses it. Director of photography James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) uses a stark photographic style, one with a more realistic, unenhanced look we might expect from more contemporary pictures shot on video or digital. He favors extreme close-ups and even over-the-shoulder moves to put us in the thick of it. In the various party scenes, the camera practically gets buried in the revels. And when things get weird, reality warps under fish-eye lenses and tricky perspectives, pushing us away at one moment and pulling us in the next, like we are dangling on a spring. There is an intimacy to our participating in the unraveling that keeps us firmly in Wilson’s shoes. We are trapped in the same horror movie as he is, but with the added enhancement of gothic organ music.

Just who the hell do you think you are?

For Wilson, that is an unanswerable question in the end. He is either/or, neither/nor. He surrendered the identity he spent a lifetime building in exchange for an altogether different, artificial construct, and when he fails to maintain it, that is stripped from him, too. It’s a fairly chilling ouroboros: you have to assimilate in order to be different. It’s the illusion of freedom, and there’s nothing really to be done, the more you push against it, the more it dissipates. So it goes, same as it ever was. THE END.

Special thanks to Francis Rizzo III, from whose review of the movie I snagged the majority of the above images.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


I’ve been circling various artful ways in which to enter this review, but they all make me more irritated and bored than I already am, so I’ll just give it to you straight: Sólo con tu pareja is not a very good movie.

I’ll even go so far as to say that it is one of the more baffling selections in the Criterion Collection. It’s fairly common for Criterion nerds to debate what movies do and do no deserve to be in the Collection, and I tend to be more forgiving than most, preferring to default to the label’s original mission statement and figure out what the film represents that makes it important to this version of cinematic history. When it comes to Sólo con tu pareja, however, I come up with nothing, except that it’s the full-length debut of Alfonso Cuarón, made in Mexico a decade before Y tu mamá también [review]. Well, I guess it’s true, everyone has to start somewhere. The cover copy calls Sólo con tu pareja a “ribald and lightning-quick social satire,” to which I can only reply, “I guess...?”

Sólo con tu pareja, which translates as “Only With Your Partner,” and has also been referred to as “Love in the Time of Hysteria,” is a sex comedy released in 1991. Written by Carlos Cuarón, it tells the story of Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho, BadEducation), a ladies man who we are lead to believe has game inside the bedroom, but who otherwise appears to be a buffoon outside of it. As a schemer, Tomás seems to have picked up most of his moves from Three’sCompany reruns. We’re talking a guy who calls in sick to work while holding the thermometer against a light bulb to prove he has a fever. Over the phone.

Tomás not only refuses to settle down, but he’s irresponsible about it. You see, Tomás is one of those immature lovers who refuses to wear condoms. If the girl is on the pill, that’s enough, he doesn’t think about other consequences (but more on that later). Things change for Tomás on a night he tries to balance two women--his best friend’s assistant, Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova), and his own boss (Isabel Benet)--keeping one in his apartment and one two apartments down. It’s when moving between the two via the building’s outer ledge, going in and out through the bathroom windows, that Tomás spots the new neighbor that has moved into the middle apartment. Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez) is a pretty flight attendant who captures Tomás’ imagination. So much so, he declares he’s in love and will change his ways to impress her.

Only, as such things go, Tomás has to actually learn his lesson first. Tomás’ best friend, Mateo (Luis De Icaza), also happens to be his doctor, and this puts Silvia in the position to intercept Tomás’ lab reports and mark him down as having tested positive for HIV. Fearing his life now ruined, while everyone else is out celebrating for New Year’s, Tomás is concocting ways to kill himself (like sticking his head in the microwave!). As luck would have it, when Clarisa comes home early and catches her own boyfriend, a pilot with silver-fox Elvis hair, having sex with another woman on her bed, she joins Tomás’ suicide mission. You think they’ll find love with one another rather than go through with it? Well, do ya’?

Oh, and did I mention that earlier Tomás accidentally gave Silvia his stool samples when seeing her off to work, and he took her lunch to the hospital for lab analysis. Is that a “meet cute” or a “meet poop”?

In many ways, Sólo con tu pareja is very much of its time, particularly in style and presentation. One could see it fitting in with the early 1990s Sundance circuit, where many middling efforts were applauded for their quirky energy and stepping outside the mainstream. Indeed, Sólo con tu pareja sort of comes off like Pedro Almodovar decided to make an Adam Sandler movie, but ended up meeting Sandler more than halfway in his attempt to adapt to the comedian’s style. Even for 1991, the comedy is politically tone deaf, making light of people’s ignorance about a very serious subject, with occasional pit stops for racist comments about some Japanese doctors visiting Mateo. Really, that Sólo con tu pareja holds any kind of critical regard at all is down to that strange reverence some cinephiles have for movies in any language other than English. Were this a Hollywood release, it would already be forgotten, and it should be held up as evidence that cinema from other shores is not automatically better or devoid of schlock. We are just normally spared anyone importing the worst of it. Hell, I’d probably sit through The Cobbler again before reaching for this disc.

As a young filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón already shows an attention to detail and an early interest in tricky shots and extreme angles. Likewise, his relationship with his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, is  starting to form. The storytelling here is clear, as are the pair’s command over a locale. What Cuarón shows little facility for, however, is comedy, which might explain why his career has gone in other directions since this debut. His instincts for what is funny and for how to frame a gag prove woefully inadequate. Despite the preponderance of pratfalls and slapstick, Cuarón is no Charlie Chaplin, and his leading man is no Buster Keaton. Cacho gives an off-putting performance full of mugging and banal mimicry. Worst of all, he fucks like he’s being bitten by bugs and is trying desperately to shake them off his body, meaning this sex comedy isn’t just unfunny, it’s unsexy, making it hard not to root for Tomás to get everything he deserves.

Though vastly different in tone and quality, Criterion also includes two short films from the Cuarón brothers on Sólo con tu pareja: Alfonso’s 1983 student film Quartet for the End of Time and Carlos’ 2002 comedic short Wedding Night. Of the two, Carlos is the winner, with a quick vignette that features a solid gag. The trick here is not overselling it or overstaying his welcome: set-up and punchline.

Quartet is more ponderous, as perhaps befitting a college project. Angst, boy, angst!