Sunday, May 29, 2005

Film and Food Poisoning

The imitation crab had been in my fridge around 10 days, and had expired on day one; but it looked good, smelled good, and tasted good, and there was nothing else in the fridge that I wanted to eat. That was at lunchtime, Thursday. It's now Sunday afternoon, and tho' I've been able to hold down a little bit of food (I haven't vomited since early Friday morning), I am sick and weak and still very much under the thrall of the bacteria I took in. What else can a man do, in this state? I've been reading and watching films.

Well, DVDs, actually. In lieu of more solid food, I've ingested the following:

Atom Egoyan's Speaking Parts: how disappointing to see this again after so many years! I used to love this film, watched it at least a dozen times in my 20's. Looking at it again after at least five years, it seems to me that it must have been the meanings framed by Egoyan that once moved me, because as a work of art, as a piece of structure -- I can finally see what Egoyan's detractors have often said about him; things felt forced, cold, artificial, and odder still: slow and boring! I don't think in my 20's I would have allowed myself to feel that way about any ambitious work of film art -- I would have taken it as a comment on my own limitations and striven to rise above it -- but the other day there seemed to be a lot of sheer downtime in the film that I simply mustn't have noticed before: unneeded repetitions of motifs, shots that lasted far longer than they needed to to make their point, or which made far too little point to justify their presence, a lot of wasted space -- like he filled out what could have been an hour-long film to give it the length of a feature. Some images still stand out as brilliant and beautiful -- Gabriella Rose and Michael McManus masturbating over the video feed remains a high point of Canadian cinema, for me -- but this film, which used to be the obligatory Canadian film on my top 10 list -- really just did not impress me as much as it used to. I'm rather sad about that! I hope Family Viewing, another favourite, doesn't end up suffering the same fate, when next I see it -- one hates to lose old favourites.

Jim Shedden's Brakhage: odd to watch Brakhage talk so much about his films and his life. One expects him to be both more difficult and purer than he ultimately comes across -- more of an eccentric, a fanatic, or perhaps a holy fool; less clearly a man with an ego investment in his art. In the earlier footage in the film, he almost seems a sort of pop star, with a rakishly styled hairdo and a bit of a swagger, like he's confident of his prestige (contrast this with Andy Goldsworthy in Rivers and Tides -- an artist who gives the impression he would be doing what he does even if no one whatsover noticed). In Brakhage's later years, this seems replaced with a sort of humility, but he still clearly likes to be the center of attention -- there are shots of him holding forth about film and life to large groups of people, and there's just enough of a need for attention revealed that one feels a little protective of him. The shot where he sings -- an ironic turn of "Old Man River" -- is just a tad embarrassing; it kind of reminds me of how I feel sometimes when my father starts to ham it up in front of my friends... Sweet, and by no means bad, but there's something vulnerable there, something that perhaps reminds one of one's own need for attention, for recognition, which makes one step back a bit... The overall affect of viewing the film is that one ends up finding it far easier to like Brakhage, and to accept him as a human being, which is surprising and in a way comforting, but also a bit disappointing. It's like watching Sun Ra clip his toenails or John Cassavetes go to the bathroom. With some artists, you want them to inhabit some otherworldly, "visionary" space; to humanize them is to take something away from them.

Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. With no disrespect intended to this film or to the man himself, I've always suspected that the cult of Kubrick is at least partially fueled by ignorance; the people who seem to most sing his praises are people who haven't seen much else in the way of serious cinema -- people whose ideas of great films include fare like Pink Floyd's The Wall or maybe even a Steven Spielberg film. Certainly the kids I grew up among in the suburbs -- the smart ones, at least -- idolized Kubrick; his stuff was widely available on video there, was notorious, was something people talked about and knew about and that inevitably you watched, and were impressed by, because it wasn't just commercial crap, because it did seem to demand a bit of thinking, and because it had, people knew, a sort of status -- in particular, 2001 for being "heavy," and A Clockwork Orange for being violent. Neither film seems particularly interesting to me, now, but at the time even I watched them more than once, even owned them at different times on video, so I could try to understand them: it seemed an obligation, something you did if you cared about movies. At some point in my mid-20's, I reached a verdict: I'd had enough and began to look down on Kubrick-heads; the man was probably a misogynist (to say nothing of Lolita and The Killing, the rape/murder in A Clockwork Orange and the wife-battering in The Shining seemed just a little too gleeful, a little too vicious, a little too sincere for me to feel clean in their presence) and undoubtedly a misanthrope, and I really just didn't care what he had to say about people. None of his films provided me with anything that seemed sustaining -- at best, they seemed to encourage in me feelings of contempt for people, hatred, mistrust, and who ultimately really needs more of that in life? With the exception of Eyes Wide Shut (which I was surprisingly fond of) and, to a lesser extent, Full Metal Jacket, and maybe Paths of Glory, I never much expected I'd want to look back on Kubrick again.

Somehow I forgot about Dr. Strangelove, tho'. Hard to feel anything but admiration for it as a piece of craft and as a dead-on satire of the military; I wish I could watch it with fresh eyes, not knowing what was going to happen next. Actually, I'm looking forward to showing it someday to a Russian friend of mine, who has never seen it; I have no idea how she'll respond, but given that she grew up viewing the Cold War from the other side -- in a climate where such a film could neither be made nor viewed -- I'm sure she'll find it an interesting experience. Watching the extras on the special edition DVD, I was shocked to discover that the filmmakers had to construct the inside of a B-52 without any help from the military, and that much of what we were seeing was simply imagined; I'd always taken it as the interior of a real plane! Even more surprising, I learned that the War Room was not in fact modelled on a real place! (All my life, I realized, my primary visual image for the interior of the Pentagon has been based on the War Room, without my knowing it; I just assumed that there must be a room that looked much like that). It was also delightful to discover that, even tho' the film was being shot in black and white, Kubrick had the table of the War Room covered in green felt, so the actors sitting around it could feel like they were engaged in a high stakes poker game. Brilliant stuff.

Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. This is one of those films that seems truly bottomless. Every time I view it, I am moved by different parts, am engaged 100% in the experience, am delighted and thrilled and interested -- it's like a ritual that never loses its meaning, however often one repeats it. (Of course, I only ever come round to it every few years -- it is three hours long, after all). Michael Jeck's commentary on the Criterion edition, to my surprise, contains a whole wealth of stuff I've never thought about in regard to the film; from detailed observations of the way the film is constructed to cultural insights to speculations on meaning -- about, say, how it is one of the last of Kurosawa's films to suggest that groups working together could accomplish anything, that Kurosawa is very much an individualist -- the detail of Jeck's observations made me aware that I've always approached this film without wanting to dissect it in any detail; that I've protected it from my own generally voracious desire to pick films apart, to keep it pure. In fact, I've stopped the film midway through the commentary, but that's partially a matter of recurring nausea...

Anyhow, I've survived to Sunday night mostly on movies, and am now going to try to take in my third meal in three days (I held down some soup on Friday and some pasta, with difficulty, on Saturday). I have cravings for either pancakes or wonton soup, neither of which sound to my rational brain like a great idea, but we'll see what wins once I actually get out the door. I don't expect I'll be able to work tomorrow -- I feel too weak -- but if I can eat, maybe I'll be okay. After that I think I'll have time for one more movie, and I'm thinking of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, which I've never seen. (Thanks to the Guy Ritchie debacle, you could find cheapie DVDs of the original on used racks of local video stores awhile back).

I think I'm going to start paying more attention to the expiry dates on food packages.


Post-script: yecch. I don't know that I'd be able to get into Swept Away at the best of times -- obnoxious Italians yelling about politics is not my idea of compelling cinema -- but it turns out the DVD release, from Wellspring, is terrible! No menu, no ability to track backwards within chapters, subtitles that sometimes only flash on screen for a second (which you then can't rewind back to read, unless you skip to the start of the chapter), and no subtitling for the songs -- it's a totally indifferent presentation of the film. It's in the right aspect ratio and looks pretty enough, but they don't even bother to translate the full title -- the bit about an obscure destiny... I lasted about fifteen minutes. There must be a better way to see this film.

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