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© 2017 by James Clark

      The many films of Michael Mann seem to be all of a piece in exuberantly delivering that cinematic Midas Touch of “action adventure.” Hardly a subscriber to settling differences with quiet and surgically elegant precision, there is about his shootouts, in a film like our present concern, Public Enemies (2009), World- War emphaticness.

You could leave Public Enemies at that, and go on to sprinkle biographical, political, ethical and cinematographical appreciations. Or, you could allow the overt but tangled delivery of poetics to bring about a lifetime of delicious toil. In the opening passage where bank robber and gangster, John Dillinger, is introduced to an Indiana penitentiary, that world of ignored drama is alive and well. We might have known that something special was up, when being drawn into the delivery of the prisoner-protagonist from a long-distance perspective such that the tiny vehicle and its complement (one handcuffed and one not handcuffed) could be likened to a visit to the Bonneville (speedway) Salt Flats. Coming closer to the pair, we—who were not only moving upon a lunar surface but sky having more to do with an astronomical observatory than a neighbor of the Gary steel mills—see them approaching the entrance, which could have been constructed by Charlemagne in the 8th century. This mix of the past and the future carries far more perceptual weight than the subsequent (not this again?) jail-break, prepped by the new-con’s contingent of long-termers but requiring that functional violence about which the man of the hour (accompanied by a fake, one-man police detail) excels. That prompt exit of figures easily overtaking normal activity involves a reprise of the uncanny, unearthly surround, before the interior of the getaway car hits us with almost full-scale schemers congratulating themselves. Johnny greets the powers-that-be in that dungeon with the rebel yell, “I’m John Dillinger. My friends call me John. But a son of a bitch like you better call me Mr. Dillinger.” That trash-talk is soon undergoing an antithesis whereby our leader, shown in close-up within the cramped confines of the Model-T, evinces that the road ahead will be a tortuous test. He clasps by the hand a seriously wounded partner sprawled on the running board.; and as the latter dies his face shows not simply the loss of a pal but the loss of coherence within his cogent mission. Prying loose the death grip, he watches the body impact the dusty terrain, with its bedrock in the mix, and feels a distinct absence of the lyricism by which he has navigated for a long time, his 9-year hermitage at that pen being an excellent place for an exceptional spirit to deal with intentional conundrums. (To emphasize how fluent he is with crisis, there is a second passenger flying off that iron-age car, someone within the gang who behaved badly during the escape. Johnny slugs him and then throws him out. We are struck by our protagonist’s effort to regain the savoir faire of the earlier part of the day.) A rally of sorts occurs for him on the dirt farm road where a sanctuary has been engendered. The spare, dark, earthy grassland brings about a calm we must not forget in the ragged hours ahead. (An a capella, Eastern European men’s chorus adds crisis in the form of straining for a disinterestedness which can’t be manhandled.)  Nor should we lose sight of the young woman being the lynch pin of the advent of the safe-house on the pragmatic grounds of which the escape succeeds. As Johnny heads for the car to get underway with his perhaps overthought-approach to other people’s money, that sombre but still beautiful factor, precipitating a camera angle showing a firmament, calls to him. And in a whispery voice corroded with harsh disappointment—disappointment that the promise of a long-term life out on that piercingly-true backwater (or elsewhere) turned out to be a cruel ruse—she makes scant verbal sense but towering physical impact notwithstanding. Johnny may be officially an ex-con but our filmic momentum is about to disclose that he’s pretty much all con, especially conning himself. (During his 9 years behind bars, he seems to have mastered a rhetorical sub-genre of preachy fondness about the meek, in the course of happily crippling the rich.) “OK, Doll, I’m sorry,” is the simplism he offers, while getting down to his real register in the car: “Let’s go to Chicago… make some money!” (Somewhat more convincing humanitarianism surfaces during the breaking out of the pen. He forcefully orders an inmate to stop beating a guard; and he’s, momentarily, at least, dismayed that another struggle ended in a low wage-earner’s death.) (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      The young but extremely formidable filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, merits, I believe, special attention for his bringing to the fore in virtuoso style the question of art production in contemporary life. He does so, not from the perspective of pedantic ideology, but from the carnal immediacy of figures pursuing objectives intuitively shallow and vile. The weight of history, appearing to condone and promote such virulent heroics, comes to bear in such a way that it is our protagonists’ injuries which hold us in thrall and, as such, link to an extensive cinematic endeavor (now central to these studies) of a lone wolf in mortal combat with a large pack.

Impressively enriching this imbroglio of tradition, in our film today, is the factor that both jazz-drum student, Andrew Neiman, and jazz-band teacher, Terrence Fletcher, have, variously, assimilated in their sensuous careers—formal and informal—that the world needs shaking up and jazz music is the air force to do the job. This is no over-done, Bach-first avowal like the one cemented to an antiquated French idiom, in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles; but nevertheless, that air force experiences acute engine trouble.

Let’s begin to approach this turbulence by getting a bead on the startling Marine boot-camp Fletcher has been allowed, for many years, to maintain within a prestigious New York City music school (the Shaffer Conservatory). In the course of the expert’s discharging his role of Department Head of the Jazz Faculty, he recruits the precocious freshman, Andrew, to the Senior Big Band. His mentoring includes an instance of expressing reproof toward the youngest hopeful, in this way: “Is that the fastest you can play? You worthless Hymie fuck! No wonder Mommy ran out on [writer/ schoolteacher] Daddy when she figured out he wasn’t Eugene O’Neil…If you deliberately sabotage my band I will fuck you like a pig! You are a worthless faggot little piece of shit!” The Department Head, in this and many other indiscretions, sends us reeling from his sense of entitlement to, on one hand, demolish in youngsters their candid musical endeavor and its mystery. In addition, during many instances of rehearsing that elite squad designed to shock and awe the best which other such ensembles can field, his leadership amounts to honing, for the sake of metronomic, sonic bullets, diamond-sharp tempo and tone. In that methodology, we soon discover the overarching priority upon exposing and punishing his galley slaves as lacking the fibre to be one of those musical icons abandoned and thereby imperilled while at the same time a presumed killing rejoinder to a dominant world history he has come to loathe. The actor, J.K. Simmons, depicting the Head, resembles a grim, ascetic priest channelling a principal of the Spanish Inquisition. There is an episode in one of the nocturnal, management-absent rehearsals when Fletcher’s claw-like hand-gesture demands a halt and he claims to hear that someone is off-key. He decrees that the culprit confess within 10 seconds. No one comes forward. The hunter confronts several players in a solo passage and nothing seems amiss. He derides the assembly with the axiom that not realising one is off-key is even worse than simply slipping. Then he makes his way into the face of a trombone-player he refers to as “Elmer Fudd.” The whip claims to know that Fudd is the travesty. The shy and terrified boy looks down to his feet during this confrontation and says nothing. That earns him being noisily and insultingly thrown out of the band in not maintaining he was faultless—after his departure, the leader telling the slaves (as if an increase in his supposed fascinating unpredictableness) he knew the ex was not to blame (pinpointing a far more handsome kid as in error and going unpunished because the lack of a killer instinct was the crime he chose to punish that day). (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

 

    The paths to Surrealist love and decadence are many and varied. Although the phenomena were incubated in Paris, the long-standing kinship between France and the USA in repelling (particularly British) sensible calculation has provided reverberations streaming out to very recent times. There is a quite pervasive volatility about those two national enterprises for which there is scant interest in a place like Canada (despite its quasi-French ingredient).

That brings us to our now upping the ante toward the more dangerous sensibilities being brought to a showdown of sorts in the movies. Surrealism—coursing through the works of David Lynch, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Jim Jarmusch, to name a few—has always been our business here. But rather than put it into play as a historical, evolutionary going concern, we’re now pulling ourselves together (I hope) to consider its confinement to lives with no real purchase in sight upon a mainstream; but rather consisting of sensual momenta staging largely invisible, self-contradictory revolutions.

We’ll begin with a film by that master of minutiae, Brian De Palma, namely, Carrie (1976), who in this case has to deal with the footsteps of not only horror author, Stephen King, whose 1974 novel by the same name offers a point of departure, but also King’s wife, Tabitha, who (rescuing his unfinished and despised [by him] draft of this vehicle) saw fit to reach back to Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel, Les Enfants Terribles (The Terrible Children) and the subsequent movie incarnation, in 1950, by another filmmaker more about pores than portents, namely, Jean-Pierre Melville, with Cocteau looking over his shoulder and keeping the faith as far as his opium addiction allowed. Cocteau/ Melville lead off with a high school boy, Paul, being felled in a snowball fight by a good friend (though not so friendly as to desist from couching his missile with a rock). De Palma, no doubt delighted by the wit of the Kings, fires off in his film, to perfect effect, the early moment where Carrie, a high school girl hamstrung by a mother staging a religious war against menstruation and thereby exposing her to shock, begins to bleed, for the first time, in her school-gym-shower, and her panic elicits not only raunchy ridicule from her far more secular classmates but a snowball fusillade of tampons, accompanied by the far from helpful, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” She is not concussed like Paul; but her sense of this world not working for her is even more pronounced. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

       The film world abounds with generally furtive protagonists locked into an almost hopeless and definitely endless dedication to sprucing up sensibilities that won’t do. One of the grand masters of presenting this unheralded and widely unsuspected mission is Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), generally regarded (when regarded at all) as a mid-century inventor of chic crime sagas. When you have nothing else to do, the now very muted chronicling runs, check one of these out for the cinematic equivalent of a “good read.” Melville’s endeavors, however, when approached with something more than a good read, come to light as remarkably close to films like Nocturnal Animals, Arrival and La La Land.

In the spirit of reaching improved clarity about this still-buried treasure, I’ll be, near the outset of this manoeuvre, digging into Melville’s final film, Un Flic (1972); then, next, I’ll be showing that Melville’s (and Jean Cocteau’s) Les Enfants Terribles (1950) is at the heart of Stephen (and Tabitha) King’s Carrie (1974) as inducing Brian De Palma, in 1976, to get up close to what’s up with the work-load of carnal consciousness; then we’ll spend the rest of the year savoring such dare devils coming at us from many sources.

One dare devil we need to open with, however, has been virtually ignored for years at this spot, namely, David Lynch. And the delirium of his Lost Highway (1997) involves, to a distinguished level, that heart-pounding crisis of perceptual lostness which is incumbent on all who care to see what cooks. Nearly seven years ago, my take on this movie stressed the noir aspects and particularly the equations of courage and cowardice. We did, of course, have to account for its being one of the most punishing narrative pitfalls in the history of cinema. But, in lieu of a premium upon consciousness per se, the matter of the two sets of hard-pressed lovers came down to a mechanistic fulcrum whereby entities are twinned in such a way that the initial presence finds itself preceded by a presence at the opposite end of the universe. This factor of Lynch’s reckoning did play a part in the coherence of the film. (The consensus that the helmsman did not have a serious idea of what was afoot, and that therefore his film is a shambles due to a self-indulgent reach exceeding its grasp, is insulting nonsense based in ignorance of what a major artist [requiring a reputation by which to raise millions of dollars] is about.) But what now must be added is the second and more primordial polarity that a material-inertial presence paradoxically is amenable to and dependent upon finite intentional consciousness to complement the formation of reality. This state of affairs accounts for a union of Fred and Renee Madison who dare to aspire to subtleties of creative dynamics, as implicated in the rough and tumble of Pete and Alice who tend to lead a far less subtle existence. (more…)

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© 2017 by James Clark

 

    In Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic, Space Odyssey (1968), one earthling, Dave, leverages his involvement in the American space program to strike up a unique and fertile relationship with a black monolith juke-box-resembling tower emitting unearthly music for the sake of an inter-species choir of lucid and ardent sensibilities. 48 years later, along comes filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve, from Quebec Canada (a place not even very good at streetcars), with a film, Arrival (2016)—also about inter-species progress—which, for the most part, exceeds expectations. Kubrick did have his Old Testament David; but unequivocally, the point was surpassing conventional relentment. What, on the other hand, are we to make of, after nearly two hours of thrilling headway, the Frank Capra denouement? Does the crashingly out of place designation, “Abbott and Costello,” for the pair of aliens they are tasked to make sense of, by a military physicist (as apparently likewised amused on the part of the protagonist, Louise, a top-notch linguistics scholar), constitute a word to the wise that, though some remnants of an obsolete world still hang around, you are welcome to regard Louise’s “triumph” as part of a vivid reverie centering upon the death from cancer of her teenaged daughter?

    Arrival, with its family-guests’ connotation of a title, is definitely sci-fi with a difference. Rather than show off the latest in deadly weapons, wielded by adventurers having been bitten by the adventurism bug since before Kindergarten, we have a central character startlingly indifferent to the day’s Breaking News that (an ecclesiastically 12) alien space ships have positioned themselves across the globe. As a teacher in a university lecture hall bemused that few students had shown up that day, she is put into the loop by one of the few faithful on hand, asking her to activate the high definition media screen to see something of compelling interest. Louise, realizing that she will not be able to get across that day the account of the peculiarities of the Portuguese language and its exceptionally fostering the art of communication, rather non-chummily intones, “Class is dismissed.” What, from her perspective, has upstaged the sensation of the century? What has impelled her to return to the ghost town of a campus next morning and drink it all in how singular she is (anticipating from the invaders either tedious violence or, at best, more of the sluggishness in her face delivered by planet Earth). Along the way, she assures her frantic mother that she has become over-excited. “Mom, please don’t watch that channel! You know they’re all idiots!”In the aura of a presumably horrific eventuation on the horizon, eclipsing the viewer’s focus on her, Louise’s being out of step is, if ever spotlighted, not merely personally bizarre but a disposition of remoteness toward human history far too gripping to ever (ever—as in that ending) turn around on a dime and become just another sentimental thrill-seeker. Miss this step and you’ve missed the movie—a film about aliens whom the protagonist comes to realize to be far closer to where she lives than the bulk of her species. This is what is truly important about this “thriller;” and this is what we’ll follow in detail. (more…)

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 © 2017 by James Clark

      La La Land (2016) approaches us as a peculiarly naive boy-meets-girl story, with an archaic musical façade. It lulls the viewer into an effervescent Debbie Reynolds’ diversion about show-biz ambition, somehow goofy and uplifting at the same time. It insinuates that the bad old 21st century is, when all is said and done, as cute and sentimental as before. But, on further inspection, its “before” turns out to be the world of Jacques Demy (1931-1990), who was neither cute nor sentimental. (I must interject, at this point, that this glowing refinement of the Demy aesthetic is, to me, an almost incredible gift! The exposition to follow, however, becomes attentive to that rally’s making any headway.)

The first encounter—bristling with  Singin’ in the Rain’s cliché of hate-at-first-sight—takes the form of her (Mia) giving him (Sebastian) the finger during a stressful LA traffic jam. Before we see them, however, we see that same freeway when clogged with convertibles and alight with song-and-dance hopefuls bounding skyward and frolicking lyrically upon what has become a virtual (cement) stage from which to display their resilience and wit. The troupe are Southern-California casually clad as they sing and dance in unison as if they were close acquaintances. Or, as if they were a company of carnies, headed for their next gig (Rochefort, France) by way of the suspension ferry-bridge which, in 1967, still served that town as occupied by members of the cast of Demy’s film, The Young Girls of Rochefort.

The song in the bottleneck, “Another Day of Sun,” conveys that paramount to their experience is the tough slog to become movie stars. (“Could be brave or just insane… reaching for the heights.”) The salsa current stresses the staccato cadence of a life of self-assertion, self-promotion and withstanding refusals and harsh discouragement while leaving room for Michel Legrand-resembling musical topspin. The phrase, “another day of sun,” pertains to gratifying opportunities in the offing every day. What it strikingly lacks—despite brio—is full-scale joyousness and lightness; and that soaring is what the Legrand pop/jazz instrumentational-only motif induces from the dance-carnies. No one declares anything on that Pont (bridge) Transbordeur. It all comes down to bodies in buoyant dance motion, joining with the natural and constructed surround as a delicious mystery, in contrast to a battlement to be scaled. The travelling music and motorcycle marketing soon experiences a defection of two of the ladies (opting for romance with two guys from Rochefort); but they had had that afternoon on the bridge. Their local replacements, twin sisters (one a musician, one a dancer), however, prove to be far more driven to public grandeur; and it is with them that the protagonists having a bad day in another day of sun coincide and with them who get under the skin of our up-to-the-minute persons of interest. (more…)

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© 2016 by James Clark

      One of the defining features of contemporary history consists in design elbowing art out of the exclusive spotlight it has enjoyed since the days of living in caves. A hundred years ago, at the dawning of surrealist art, sensual proclivities stemming from the motives of the Romantic era saw fit to imbue the constructs of practical life with functions of vision hitherto regarded as profane, as distinct from the sacred status of artistry.

Film art has evinced a fascinating ambiguity in face of this notable shift. The overt craft-design content of that métier has bolstered a priority of design calculated to speak to the more modest pleasures of craft. Those avatars of that industry who could see the point of dovetailing with theatre art have tended to access film schools and their repository of traditional humanistic vision.

Whereas many of the stalwarts of that catch-as-catch-can business have done very well for themselves in reaffirming a tried and true territory, there have been noteworthy exceptions of those with a background of architecture, graphic, industrial and fashion design, surrealist painting, advertising and rock music who march to the sound of a different drummer—a march decidedly at odds with a Renaissance no longer excitingly futural. A recent figure on this horizon is Tom Ford, who, like Ridley Scott, has been and continues to be a player in the world of marketing. (more…)

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