Archive for the ‘author James Clark’ Category


 © 2016 by James Clark

      Feature films being pretty high on the entertainment food chain (just spend a few minutes with what Vanity Fair magazine has become), most of us readily subscribe to the truism that each new profit centre has to come up with something “incredibly” different to please appetites forever seeking new thrills. Think of the spectacular range of David Lynch’s fireworks from Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive. Whereas the Surrealist dictates of his muse well accommodate dazzlements from various dimensions of the vast, dark and fertile skies, it may be premature to conclude that all avant-garde commitment must embrace similar dramatic shock on the order of supernova cinematography. This consideration especially rains down on us when we contemplate the many films brought to light by the prolific Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch and his cameraman, Robbie Muller, clearly do not go on location to distant galaxies in order to deliver their goods. Though as unique in his way as Lynch, he sustains an output which could be described as one long, repeated, low-key activation on behalf of a virtually inaccessible rightness, or law. Time drags; gloom seeps into every nook and cranny; and it’s oddly funny and amazing—that, on the basis of dialogue as a generator of generally invisible awe. From the perspective of Lynch’s sensuality, that invoking of the surreal “more” looks inside-out. The cosmic break-out imagined in so many ways by so many auteurs, comes to be tempered in ways which take quite a while to accommodate. The Surrealist thrust for the “more” than discrete advantageousness comes in for a challenge to its downplaying of the creative energies of very human, very error-prone players.

Jarmusch has strongly hinted and gone on to prove in the action of his work to be particularly absorbed with the processes of music. Notably, then, right on the heels of a film from 1984 spotlighting Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the song, “I Put a Spell on You;” and a film from 1986 featuring a disc jockey—we have our film of today (from 1989), namely, Mystery Train, and the mystery of Elvis. And withal we have to scour the tiny portals offering access to a zone of grace (a Graceland) freighted with tons of refuse. (A very early moment has a pair of young Japanese tourists on a pilgrimage to the musical heart of America, and their train passes a striking series of garbage dumps.) An indication that the hitherto gentleness of the prospect of such shortfalls has moved into a less sanguine perception may be most incisively found in the second part of the three-part structure of Mystery Train. There we have an Italian woman, having been a resident of the U.S. for some time, returning to Italy with the coffin of the man in her life. That actress Nicoletta Braschi portrays this enduring of the school of hard knocks represents a very deliberate recall of her role in the preceding Jarmusch film, Down by Law, where she encounters and falls in love with an Italian drifter, felon and fugitive (Roberto). Roberto’s settling down with her has its ominous factor, as enunciated by one of the sayings of DJ, Zack (to be found in the earlier film), “It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop.” (Fellow-fugitive Zack [played by singer Tom Waits] resurfaces in Mystery Train as Memphis DJ, “Domino,” and his domino effect.) Now the dead man in our film, parked in Memphis during a one-day delay in scheduling, remains unnamed and the widow is Luisa, not Nicoletta. But the ongoing aura is not to be missed, in its accomplishing a fresh dimension of an inexhaustible problematic.Whereas Nicoletta was an ardent devotee to the delights of food, dancing and love of Roberto, Luisa, on the phone to Rome with the details of her voyage, covers the reversal with corporate realism: “I’m OK. That’s just the way life is.” Now that assurance precisely activates the work’s labor of love, inasmuch as it’s here to show those of us who can see that such cold-bloodedness is not the way (the essence of) life is, despite a large majority maintaining—in the words of Zack’s departing girlfriend—that “jerking people off a little” is the way to wholesomeness, to being a lawful, productive human being. (more…)

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 © 2016 by James Clark

      Many of the best and the brightest exponents of cutting-edge films approach us from out of formidable cinematographic, optical skills. Several—like David Lynch, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Ridley Scott, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Jacques Demy, Spike Jonze, Wong Kar Wai, Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glaser, Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami—began their transaction as producers of paintings, graphic design, architecture, photography and fashion. As such their evocation of energies not appropriately recognized in mainstream history tend to unleash virtuoso visual impact (infused with aural complement). Jim Jarmusch, quite to the contrary—describable, I think, as Antonioni for extroverts—though far from inept as to visual and sonic excitement, has a playwright’s appetite for the revelatory range of dialogue and its precinct of interpersonal situations.

Near the outset of his second film, Down by Law (1986), we are treated to a piercing clash of bristling verbiage between a DJ, Zack (all but silent), and his girlfriend, Laurette (quickly living up to her born-to-lose name in the born-to-lose city of New Orleans, where nothing is new and the aura of being burned at the stake carries a lot of weight). As the episode catches fire, we have Zack in the Maid’s role and Laurette adding fuel to the fire in the form of pelting him with swatches of his CD and vinyl collection. “It’s just you… You don’t take care of me!” she declares. “I’m ashamed of you, Zack… I’m finished with you! I’m completely finished with you… I’ve had it with you and your fuckin’ stupid radio show” [with its myriad voices]. Then she skids into a zone where a recognition of glories notwithstanding have to be given some due. Laurette, an avatar of keeping the faith, comes down on her knees to reason with a beau sitting on the mattress on the floor but also thousands of miles away in his own (far less demonstrative) dilemma. “OK… Everything’s OK,” she whispers with tears forming in her eyes. “Why can’t you stay with one station? Why are you fuckin’ your own future? [He looks away] … What are you so afraid of, Zack?” By way of explaining himself, the music man offers, “Yeah, well that’s alright, Laurette… We can’t live in the present forever…” She, taking his in fact possibly complicated consideration to be a sign of welcome simplicity, points out that he could reapply to stations in the far-flung cities which he walked away from. “There’s nothing wrong with asking somebody for somethin’… [Frustration rising] Why is it always so fuckin’ hard for you?” The camera angle has her standing looking our way while Zack crouches on the floor, looking away. From out of this seeming channel of compromise she bids: “You’re a good DJ, Zack. All you gotta do is jerk people off a little… That’s all they really want, you know…” How wrong her hope was, however, is not long in blowing up in his face. He nods, in assenting to her awareness that to get ahead (and thereby take care of her sentimental priorities) you have to be comfortable (as she is) being a peasant. Then he explodes this mismatch by quietly and painfully wheezing, “Well, I never jerk people off… And you fuckin’ know it, Laurette…” Her reaction, predictably, involves more noise and violence. But, this being the work of a film aristocrat, she shows us much more than that. In the first seconds of this clash, she races about tossing those little black flying saucers, and her visage is as much a smile as a grimace. From out of that shaky passion she challenges his interpersonal pedigree. “I’m not talkin’ to you anymore… because you don’t want to fuckin’ be here! I hate you and I’m an idiot for being with you… You’ve made me embarrassed of my own time.” The final step of this honky-tonk refinement comprises her attempting to throw his Louboutin-vintage steel-toe Paris buckaroo boots over their wrought-iron balcony and into a desolate street of dreams. “Not the shoes!” he uncharacteristically yells. Her retort—“No? Go on, hit me, motherfucker! Hit me!” The full thrust of this strangely civilized freak-out involves a cut to that gutter and the wall setting it off with its torn beverage poster saying, “And don’t forget to bring Granddad…” Sitting on the curb, as he does, Zack momentarily seems a letdown. But then he tosses away the loafers he had put on to go downstairs and he slowly puts on the kickers Laurette did manage to violate, brushing them off with a rag. (more…)

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© 2016 by James Clark

As an adage, “Never underestimate a filmmaker’s first feature,” may be overrated. (Think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s disaster, Story of a Love Affair [1950].) But, in the case of Jim Jarmusch, I think anyone who wants to measure what’s up with him and his work can’t spend enough time on Stranger than Paradise (1984). (Jarmusch did produce a student project, Permanent Vacation, in 1980; but here we want to see what happens when school’s out.)

Proximity to college film studies (even after an extended trip to Paris) could be limiting or liberating—it all depends on what the novice brings to the cultural/ academic poker table. Where, then, did he come across that beat generation testament, Pull My Daisy (1959); and how did he run with it? Pull My Daisy, a film by Robert Frank from a screenplay by Jack Kerouac, brings to collision course a stuffy bishop and his stuffy wife (invited by the wife of a railway brakeman-cum-writer) with uninvited bohemian friends of the man of the house. (The locals include Allen Ginsberg and, more interestingly, Delphine Seyrig, as the lady of the house.) This self-consciously overkill insurrection, by those self-assured to be hipster legends on having charmed the pants off Gotham’s media, for the sake of ridiculing the whole sweep of American life, shows that update of the Marx Brothers implicitly feeling entitled to the keys of the planet on the basis of their self-satisfaction with their acuity and virtue. (more…)

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 © 2016 by James Clark

 Terrence Malick could hardly be called a connoisseur of modern urban life. Over the years the few films he has brought to us have contemplated denizens of social backwaters like the semi-bucolic precincts of his first career as a philosophy/ theology academic, however cut short by realization that the life of a mole is constricted.

His recent film, Knight of Cups (2015), kicks off with a donnish-tone Ben Kingsley, echoing the many Harvard and Oxford dons (especially pertaining to that staunch ruralist, Martin Heidegger) our helmsman would have subjected himself to (before waking up a bit)—and drawing our attention to 17th century divine, John Bunyan, and his best-seller, The Pilgrim’s Progress, with its take on “safe arrival.” With that intoning underway, it promptly gives us a figure who, we see at a glance, is not one of those safe arrivals being touted. He peers about, distractedly, while roaming on a mud flat far from habitation—a perspective intensified by a glimpse of gossamer-green aurora borealis playing over a horizon as seen from outer space.

Another quick early peek of the territory, however, shows us, up close, the morose one while in that wilderness being quite cavalier in operating (as silently presented) a cool sports convertible in the company of two Oriental girls sticking out their tongues and twisting around in pleasure as they zip along one of those palm avenues which automotive Los Angelinos have no problem with. (Malick’s first film, Badlands [1973], featured a pair of zippy motorists in the land of big skies just north of Texas. They were movers and shakers of sorts; but glad to be in the farmlands.) We then become inundated by the first swatch of many flashy architectural towers and palaces and their industrial design concomitants. The accretion of a voice-over reading that aforementioned ancient homily tilts the incongruity to a pressure point readily developing into earthquake proportions. Our protagonist and his variable malaise somehow have been set against this religious action the plain, mundane directionality of which does not seem to coincide with Malick’s deposit of uncanny mysticism, which drove him to tell his Oxford tutor, Gilbert Ryle, he of ‘ordinary language” virtue, to shove his pussy ordinariness up his pussy ass. (more…)

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 © 2016 by James Clark

      Brian De Palma—a science prodigy and high school wunderkind—could, no doubt, have carved out a peppy career in some corner of what practitioners call “hard science.” At the doorway (in the form of Columbia University) of this generally considered to be fulfilling life, he turned away in favor of becoming a movie maker. Some might jump to the conclusion that he realized he didn’t have what it takes to pursue a “hard” endeavor. My guess is that he came to realize that science isn’t hard enough.

Whereas classical rational science is about managing the architecture of a brilliant intellectual past in order to discern growth potential which could up the ante of discovery, it also functions as a form of church which sustains taboos against regarding sentient entities as logically more cogent than aggregations of elemental particles. It is, I think, the matter of that hostility and coercion which induces, despite the many attractions of scientific research, the drastic turnaround into personas and their seemingly unacceptable, unpredictable actions. Exciting as dynamic scientific discoveries may be, even more exciting (to De Palma) are the truths and consequences of dynamic courage which only full-blown human sensibilities can discover.

The métier which De Palma has settled upon is not without its possibilities of profiting from the architecture of its own brilliant past. Much has been said about his being suffused with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. But that rather ordinary tip of the iceberg traces to Continental avant-gardists as suffused with the energies of the surreal, where humans count for much more (reality) than mathematical flecks. The sensual priorities of this repository entail a remarkable sense of embattlement with mainstream dictates. (In view of this disposition it is well to note that two distinguished colleagues of his generation, namely, Ridley Scott and Michael Mann, present close accompaniment to De Palma’s modus operandi. Mann is particularly significant in being [unusually, for this situation] explicit about his indebtedness to Jean-Pierre Melville—a preposterously underestimated giant—and his own formative years as a close associate with Surrealist jack-of-all-trades, Jean Cocteau.) (more…)

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 © 2016 by James Clark

      Brian De Palma, apparently pigeonholed as a disciple of Alfred Hitchcock, would seem to be an unlikely kin to a strict, Jesuitical Catholic who, for all his technical and narrative skills, regarded movie production as clever manipulation in the service of marking time before going to a better show. (Of course there would be clandestine cultivation of phenomenal regions not officially sanctioned. But such embellishments would be harnessed to a prescribed triviality.) Hitchcock’s films brim with entertaining instances of entropy (gradual decline into disorder) from out of precepts inculcated by theological doctrine, not close, free-wheeling experiential investigation. De Palma’s embrace of entropy is quite a different matter, even granting that he does include motifs from Hitchcock films in many of his endeavors to enlighten, rather than amuse.

You might imagine that a career change of focus from physics and incipient computer science at Columbia University to theatre and film studies would be more than a siren call to fame and fortune, especially in view of a researcher, from secondary school onward, winning many prizes for inventiveness along sightlines of fundamental questions. There are ways, not terribly abstruse, of incorporating the distemper, gore and eroticism of a film like Dressed to Kill (1980), within a purview of serious reflection. The history of modern film is quite heavily populated with rich variations of such outreach, erected by artists who regard colleagues as part of a history of crucial largesse (including actors, whom Hitchcock never tired of denouncing as puppets with brains far inferior to his).

At and near the beginning of today’s film, there are two renditions of the iconic shower assault in Psycho (1960). Their impact is diametrically opposite to the Hitchcock classic inasmuch as they evoke a specific apparition in the history of avant-garde film—namely, Giuliana, the entropic and amazingly resilient protagonist of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964)—rather than discharge a spectacular storm of venom and horror for the sake of maintaining that worldly experience is a nullity. (more…)

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by James Clark

     Life (2015), a film about a desultory movie star in tandem with an ambitious photojournalist, appears to be absorbed in the delivery of visual liveliness, charisma. Put into play by Anton Corbijn, a major photographer in his own right, dating from long before his movie work, there is one other aspect which changes everything: Corbijn’s photography has been focused upon rock and roll—videos, band promotional photos and portraits. The star, James Dean, could be treated as a glamorous, gifted “discovery” like that of so many others in the history of Hollywood, which is to say, a heart-throb in the mold of Adonis or Venus, having no significant historical mooring. However, if we keep our ears as well as our eyes open, we will, I think, have to accommodate James Dean’s being a fairly alert sensibility at the dawning of rock music, a participant of that restlessness being touted, in the words of an LA disc jockey listened to by the photojournalist, Dennis Stock, as he works in his darkroom at the film’s very beginning, “…new country blues song… everyone’s talking about…” Stock completes his processing the print, the DJ yells, “Don’t touch that dial, ’cause now we’ve got Lightnin’ Hopkins!” And Lightnin’ (a rock guitarist [“country blues” being his tag] ahead of his time and an inspiration for hordes of killer guitarists in subsequent decades) detonates a note which sets off an A-bomb flash of white void to magisterially dovetail with: the red glow of the lab (and its faintly grinding sonic atmosphere) and its glowing electrical red filament jumping into view like a nasty alien approaching a space-ship wall; and, moreover, the red flames of the title, Life. A cut to Stock’s driving along night-time LA streets includes Lightnin’s razor-sharp pop which puts to shame the tepid torch-singer polluting the event he sees fit to attend, making sure that his camera and supply of flash-bulbs are tip-top before exiting his black sedan (black sedan; and it’s the year 1955), and approaching the party mall where Hollywood director, Nicholas Ray, is staging a party with a view to future movie magic we soon doubt could withstand the Lightnin’ test. (more…)

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