29 December 2012

My Top Ten Films for 2012

1. L'enfant d'en haut (Meier)
2. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (W. Anderson)
4. Gianni e le donne (DiGregorio)
5. Bernie (Linklater)
6. The Master (P. Anderson)
7. Lincoln (Spielberg)
8. Holy Motors (Carax)
9. Noordzee, Texas (Defurne)
10. Seven Psychopaths (McDonagh)

Honorable Mention: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin)Argo (Affleck)The Deep Blue Sea (Davies)Generation P (Ginzburg)Any Day Now (Fine).

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Best Actress: Rachael Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea)
Best Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained)
Best Supporting Actress: Edith Scob (Holy Motors)

L'enfant d'en haut -- released in the U.S. under the title "Sister" -- is my top film of 2012. You likely missed this gem as it quickly passed through a few select American theaters. It only played in Berkeley for a week. On the other hand there were months worth of Batmen Spidermen Ironmen and JamesBondmen. There is no underestimating the state of American culture. In any case look for Sister on DVD in the coming months enjoy and thank me later. It co stars the lovely Lea Seydoux who appeared in Midnight in Paris and had a small role in Inglorious Basterds. She features along with a young lad by the name of Kacey Mottet Klein. They are a very down on their luck duo (maybe brother and sister maybe not) living near a chichi ski resort in Switzerland. The boy supplies most of their income through common thievery and the young woman just wants to meet the right guy. It is a touching but never maudlin tale that Chaplin would have been proud to direct. However the director here was Ursula Meier directing only her second feature. Hopefully there will be more to come and hopefully they will enjoy wider releases in the U.S.

27 December 2012

Dr. Tarantino Prescribes What Film Goers Need -- Django Unchained!

I do not have to post this. I can write whatever I want so long as it's true.

I frequently write just after bouncing back from a cold or even as now when still suffering the sniffles the soar throat the chills. The easy agony of a common cold. When I taught middle school I would average three or four a year. Now that I work with an adult population I get by with one or two. Hallelujah.


Slept let today not having to go into work. Later oldest daughter and I saw Django Unchained which you may have heard about. Director Quentin Tarantino is an acutely self aware film maker. He knows exactly what he's doing and what effect he wants. There is a comfortable self consciousness about his desire to push our buttons. He is a film lover who wants his films to be loved. He is in fact a director who constantly puts himself in the the mindset of the audience. But the good thing is that Tarantino is not trying to sell tickets -- just please those who purchase them. He doesn't pander or sell out his vision indeed his vision is as clear as crystal.

You sit down for a Tarantino movie and your going to get what he thinks is best. Dr. Tarantino has your prescription. Swallow whole.

Why are his films so violent? I don't know why is life so violent? You ever read a history book or check out the news? People be getting shot everyday all over the place sometimes in great numbers. Film violence is wonderfully unreal with the big fat benefit of no one actually dying. In fact cinematic violence is often an effective story telling device as long as it is used in the forwarding of telling a story and not as an entertainment end to itself. Tarantino tells the types of stories that call for shots to be fired people to keel over screaming in pain and for blood to spurt. Django Unchained would not have worked if Eric Rohmer had directed it. Just as Tarantino could not have done justice to Clair's Knee (1970).

Think about -- tell me I'm wrong.

One thing that struck me about Django Unchained was how closely the antebellum slavery it depicts resembled everything I've read and for 18 years taught about the peculiar institution. The treatment of the slaves the look of the plantation the attitudes the dress the manner. Credit to Tarantino for nailing all that. It was an ugly unpleasant and very violent world and would that there had been a whole mess of real Djangos to extract a little --nah, a LOT -- of revenge. Pow! Bullet in an overseer's gut.

Django is freed and ultimately hired by a bounty hunter (Christoph Walz) who teaches him the tricks of the trade and how to bloody well read to boot. Waltz is just the sort of mannered self conscious actor ideally suited for a Tarantino movie. Match made in film heaven. Kerry Washington is Django's ravishing wife whose freedom they seek to gain from a plantation owner played to perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio. Samuel L. Jackson is the embodiment of the loyal Uncle Tom House Nigger (as called by field slaves). A fawning sycophant whose got it far far far better than 97% of those in bondage and ain't about to rock no motherfuckin' boat. Whitey could count on his house slaves.

Django Unchained is a buddy picture. A revenge flick. A twisted slice of historical fiction. It is most of all a way of giving a cultural corrective to the horrible image of the beaten and submissive slave who had to watch from his knees as his woman was beaten or sold or both. I never sugar coated my teaching of slavery. It would have been a disservice to make this sad history anything other than the horror that it was. It also needed to be (and still does need be) taught as precisely and accurately as possible. Full of the cruelty rape duplicitousness savagery and stench of high hypocrisy. There is no pretty little ribbon to be put around the real story of American slavery. Stink. Stank. Stunk.

So let's have this film where we can at least play with the notion of one ex slave extracting some revenge. And how about this message: a freed black man "going back" for a woman. The woman he loves.

It is a story told with bravado with rich charters aplenty an eclectic soundtrack brilliant visuals and yes large dollops of blood.

And damned if it didn't make me completely my cold for two and half hours.


19 December 2012

Joy to the World and Especially to You Fanny and Alexander

We are all miracles. The odds against our being born are far greater than the odds against being elected president once we are born. We defy explanation. Passion. Love. Art. The music of Verdi. The paintings of Raphael. The poetry of Neruda. A long slow kiss. Fresh cherries. The films of Chaplin. Love. The overwhelming desire to be with someone to hold them to look into their eyes to be as one with another.

We interrupt our rapture for pain and insanity and cruelty and hatred sprinkled with terrifying moments when the entire world seems to be giving way from beneath. The pitch blackness that infects the mind and soul and leads us to sob or cringe or kill. Death -- not our own for that is easy. The death of those close to us. Their permanent departure from our lives. That void. How horribly final.

No wonder we are conflicted. A constant battle between joy and sorrow rages on within and about us. And it is always surrounded and often obscured by the mundane. Indeed we often cloak ourselves in the trivial (think of television) to find respite from the harder truths. And so we become numb. Awakening to one of the twin forces in times of clarity. Sure we deflect the awful but so often we fail to welcome the beautiful as if it were so great an effort to invite the wonders.


And then there is the meaningful. The knowledge that abets our greatest hopes and worst fears (have you ever had the worst day of your life? Have you ever had your best? Do you reckon that more contenders for both will come along? Are you girded for the storm? Are you...). So often we confuse information for truth or understanding. Our brains collect trivia and we stamp ourselves smart then recoil at contradictions unable to break away from linear thinking.

As we aim to possess understanding it calls us weak and stupid and we shove it under a rug and tell more lies -- mostly to ourselves.

Celebrations. Why do I a non believer so love Christmas? I always have. As a child. As a teen. As a young adult. As a parent of children. Now as a parent of 20 somethings. It is -- you see -- colorful and different. Christmas comes with its own set of music and decor and lights and traditions and food and drinks and treats and of course gifts. Family feels so close. So secure. So loving.

Some will tell you that there is a war on Christmas. If so it has no chance. This entrenched holiday is everywhere for  a full month. The only blows it has suffered is the use of Happy Holidays in lieu of Merry Christmas and the elimination of a nativity scene or two. Christmas thrives because it is an economic force as well as cultural one. Xmas has barely suffered a few nicks and bruises.

Christmas also brings with its own set of films. (Please see the Christmas label on the right of this page for some of my past posts about Christmas movies.) A recent tradition for me this time of year is to watch the magnificent Ingmar Bergman opus Fanny & Alexander (1982). The full version as shown originally on Swedish TV. It is a rich sumptuous delight. The five plus hours (spread over two nights) spent with the Ekdahl family of whom the titular characters are two junior members flies by. How can it not with the rich cinematography of Sven Nykvist? Sets down to the tiniest prop that are brimming with beauty and color and evoke early 20th century Sweden.

Only the film's first hour takes place at Christmas and what a Christmas it is. Brimming with an amazing blend of tradition and spontaneity. Rich with food and gifts and fun. Downright sensual and ribald yet fit -- so very fit -- for a child. Here is life in full and the joys of family love and love of family. Here is the precursor of the troubles that are to come for out two young protagonists but the foreshadowing of their courage and their families devotion that will rescue them.

Amazing wonders and villains and strange heroes await the children. Steadfast are two uncles one a lout to his poor wife the other a loving if unfaithful husband who takes great huge gulps of life. Grandmother is so strong and wise and peaceful and kind. She even has a Jewish lover has had since before she was widowed. Wink. Wink. And mother. Widowed suddenly but a much older husband (whose ghosts regularly checks in with Alexander not the only apparition he will see). Mother beautiful loving but what a mistake she made in making the bishop her second husband. One of filmdom's great evil characters.

Fanny and Alexander is a wonder a miracle an amazing journey through all the darkness and light that life can throw our way with no wasted time on the plain the ordinary the mundane. Here in film is life in full. Huzzah!

16 December 2012

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone

"We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds."- Anton Chekov.
 I wonder as I wander.

I'm off for a week so get to watch a gazillion films and read a library's worth of books and listen to Christmas Carols and eat gluttonously and repent at the gym and contemplate all the eternities of dozens of memories. Meanwhile I ache at the thought of six year olds slaughtered indiscriminately.

Roger Ebert in addition to being a legendary film critic is also a sharp observer of the social and political scenes in this country. He's just a damn good writer and a very very smart man. However in blogging about the massacre in Newton he condemned the news media for their role in glorying the stories of  Columbine style mass murderers (The Trenchcoat Mafia) and suggested that this leads to copycat killers. This in turn was his response to the notion that films and TV influence the perpetrators of such heinous crimes.


Let's all stop with side issues. There are two ways to address to the kind of killings that can turn movie theaters and shopping malls and elementary schools into killing fields.

The first and most important is the quick identification of and treatment for the types of mentally unstable young men who go on rampages. Sandy Hook Elementary School had just installed new security measures to protect its students. These proved worthless. We can hardly be expected to turn our schools and every other public building into stalags anyway. We cannot stop movies TV shows or video games from depicting violence lest we slip down the slippery slope of censorship. And we cannot expect the news media to ignore the stories of society's monsters. But perhaps we can learn to recognize the kinds of behaviors in our young people that may later manifest themselves in horrible ways. Certainly very few become mass killers but there are a thousand different ways in which they can hurt innocent people. Maybe we can start intercepting these people and providing them with the kind of treatment that will make them happier and more productive citizens and make the rest of us safer. I know I know I know this is akin to the idea of expending more resources on preventing young people from becoming criminals so that we can spend less on incarceration. An ounce of prevention. It is the type of thing talked about and talked about and rarely seriously addressed. Perhaps last week's tragedy can provide an impetus. We certainly owe it to the memories of those babies who were killed.

The second and more immediate action that can be taken is passing much more stringent gun control laws. No citizen needs the type of assault rifle that was used on those children. But let me pause here to add a personal note: Fuck you NRA. Fuck you and your tragic misinterpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Fuck you for fighting tooth and nail and with millions of dollars to keep any kind of gun control legislation passed no matter how rational. Fuck you for promoting a gun culture in the United States and the idea that an armed citizenry is a free one (those children at Sandy Hook are free all right -- free of their lives). Fuck you NRA. Rivers of blood are on your hands for your maniacal determination to keep guns in the hands of every sentiment being. You not only help arm mass killers but the day to day individual murderers that go on relentlessly throughout the country. And a final fuck you to the legislators who have allowed themselves to be bought and intimidated by the NRA. Your hands drip with blood too. (See this story: Twelve Facts About Guns and Mass Shootings in the U.S. and please note numbers 8 and 9.)

I do believe that  this time people are angry enough that some sort of token gun control legislation will be passed on the national level. It's hard to be optimistic that it will be enough.

So we process as best we can the idea of an elementary school being the site of a massacre. The sorrow and the anger must not consume us. We have our own lives to manage. But neither should we let them go too quickly. It is critical to channel that outrage and hurt into meaningful action. I have noticed how people -- usually men -- will hang on to anger after their favorite team loses a game. In a situation in which they are utterly powerless they will fume and fuss and contemplate what could have and what should have been. Some of their rantings are a healthy release but after awhile that energy is utterly and completely useless. We have little power over how are team does on the field. But we do have a say in  how our communities and cities and states and country conduct its affairs. Together it is possible  to affect change.

At least we can start the conversations. At least we can ask questions and write letters and do research and demand action. As long as this society stands by and when tragedy strikes merely sends "thoughts and prayers" and "offers condolences" we are all accomplices. We must stop writing "there are no words." Bullshit. There are a lot of words. There are words like: "that's enough something must be done. We've got to figure out how to identify the disturbed before they kill. We've got to keep young people from so easily and quickly turning to crime. We've got figure out how to keep assault weapons out of everyone's hands and other weapons out of the hands of those who are unfit and unqualified." There are lots of similar words and it's time we started using them.

Shock is understandable. Sorrow is natural. Now onto the outrage and action. There are enough angels right now.

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.  ~ George Elliot

10 December 2012

Waiting for God to Show Up Seeing a Good Story Instead The Flowers of St. Francis

I have a friend who regularly tells stories from his day.  Often I wait for a dramatic conclusion or a point. But usually the story just dies a natural death with no denouement and no lesson learned. Merely a simple slice of everyday life. Often these stories reflect a kind act or a minor revelation of character. But just as often there is seemingly nothing to them. But I indulge these stories because he is a friend and because in their simplicity and the straight forward fashion in which they are offered comes a kind of comfort. So much of life is comprised of the quite ordinary that defy any attempts to provide meaning -- should one be foolhardy enough to try. Things happen. An errand is run. A walk is taken. A task is carried out. An acquaintance is greeted. Nothing to see here. Just move along. And so we do. The recounting of the mundane is not pointless if offered genuinely and without embellishment.

There is an element of this in a Robert Rosselilni film called The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). The first time I watched it some months ago I was disappointed having made the huge mistake of awaiting some dramatic moment or some profound insight. There seemed little point to these tales of Francis of Assisi, the Italian monk of the 12th century. Like much of Rossellini's earlier work it was a joy to look at and had a strong sense of realism having been shot on location sans professional actors (in this case actual monks played monks). But I was waiting for god to show up or at least a miracle to show some rascally sinners. At the very least I expected a profound point to be made.

Be careful what you look for you may be missing something else.

I gave the film another try yesterday. Who knows what compels one to give a film a second chance. But I did and am glad of it.

There was Francis leading his charges through a rainstorm back to their shelter which had been usurped by a nasty old cuss. In another film the squatter would have been given what for. Here the monks yielded their spot being told by Francis that they should take satisfaction in having given another protection from the elements. Later we see Francis and company building new digs. We see them take in an old fool who no one else wants. We see Francis embrace a leper he encounters. We see them given a large recently deceased pig and promptly pass the meat to the poor. We see Fra Ginapro try to cook two weeks worth of food in one go (to save time) and later we see him nearly butchered by a tyrant. We see a lot of Francis and his soft smile offer stern lessons on charity and following god's will. There is none of the religious intolerance and bigotry that has been such a part and parcel of so many manifestations of christianity over the millennia. There is a constant concern for the plight of the needy.

The Flowers of St. Francis can be interpreted as christian propaganda but I feel it is far less so than a film like It's a Wonderful Life (1946) with its angels and prayers being answered. As a rabid non believer I appreciated it for the wonderful episodic tellings of humility. Stark real simple humble men who live their principles. They are believers. Their belief is not revealed through words but deeds. Unspectacular. Unvarnished. Uncomplicated. The polar opposite of the biblical epics that ate up hours of my youth when I wanted to be playing baseball.

Simplicity as art.